living in Australia is like
living after death
you hear all outside happenings
totally unrelated to yourself
‘I was the boy who could have got killed instantly when he ran across the street in front of the rushing truck at the age of 5 or 6, or possibly 7 or 8,’ said the poet, remembering the past, as he looked around at his audience. But there was no audience, not since he first set foot on Australian soil, more than thirty years ago.
It took him a while before he realised he was dead.
The poet went past a homeless man sleeping rough, in the open, on a street corner. He thought of himself like him as he, too, was homeless, spiritually.
The translator was working on a book on Brodsky where he noticed that there was this ‘fifth paragraph’ in a Russian passport where ‘you have to make a choice between “Russian” and “Jewish” as nationality.’1
The translator went over to his wife and told her this while commenting that in Australia they don’t need that because one’s face is one’s nationality; a Chinese face would discriminate against itself for life. ‘Why, I mean,’ said the translator. ‘I have spent decades applying for a university teaching job but in vain, my face not right for English, my face being my own death.’
Having said that, he recalled how he was discriminated against in China even as a child because his father’s class status (chengfen) was a historical counter-revolutionary (lishi fangeming) and he had to lie about it throughout his teenage and youthful years. Still, nothing compares with a face sentenced to life imprisonment, academically and economically, in a second country.
Potato Flower is a friend. She does oil paintings. On a daily basis. Never exhibited in any shows, solo or group. Not interested in them. Keeps changing her style. Her small rooms filled with her paintings, to a bursting degree. Not caring who’s there to buy, either. Only caring about painting. In a country geared for profit, she is an exception.
And her words carry a lot of weight when she said, to my ears only, ‘I have seen them, and seen through them, all. If you let me revise and update The Ballarat Star’s editorial remark that “In our time at least…[Chinese] will write us no books, edit no journals, add nothing to science or the arts, serve on no juries nor in any legislative assembly”, 2 this is what I’ll say, “In our time at least…[Chinese] will write us books but will never be allowed to win the Miles Franklin Award, add something to the arts but will never be allowed to win the Archibald Prize, and will never be allowed to become PM”. You wait and see.’
The poet, in his death, remembers his past, long past. Mother and son in a room one bed long, from one wall to the other, with a gap between the bed and the wall wide enough to fit only a stack of suitcases. Mother slept alone in the big bed. Son slept in a smaller bed from across the big bed against the facing wall, half of it underneath a table placed under the window. Simply put, it’s a 4m x 4m room. Years after, when he was asked why he had to go to Australia, he couldn’t find any words to speak about it. His Australian friend had actually discouraged him from going by saying: But the city you want to come to is full of car accidents and murder cases. It’s no better than where you live now in China.
I know the dead poet and I’ll quote something he has written in an unpublished book manuscript:
According to Solzhenitsyn, Russian poet Tanya Khodkevich got ‘a ten-year sentence for these verses’:
You can pray freely
But just so God alone can hear.3
Slightly better than I, sentenced to a thirty-year sentence in this country where a PhD is an illusory degree that condemns one to stay outside the white universities for life.
‘Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,’ writes Isabel Wilkerson. ‘A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.’4
The poet, if alive, would have said something more to the point: The country leaves you alone in minding its own business, you being never part of it.
Vin, before his death in the hospital, said to you over the phone, ‘You must make a case for China.’ He shared two memories with you. When he was a student in Melbourne, he went to Little Bourke Street for lunch. The waiter said to him: How much have you got? He pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket and presented them. The waiter counted them and said: That should be enough. In no time, he came out with a large bowl of steaming noodles, twice as much as his coins were worth.
Another experience he had on a bus where the white man sitting next to him refused to share with him a newspaper he was reading. This hurt him so much that he recalled how people in India would take a newspaper apart, with everyone around reading a part of it.
Before he died, he had spent 50 years in Australia.
‘You didn’t want people to know you, know about you, are you sure?’
‘No, I didn’t. What’s the point liking someone when dead but ignoring him when alive?’
‘Isn’t there something close to Jewish self-hatred in you?’
‘I don’t know about that. But I am my own creator and my own destroyer. I have total freedom in that regard. And total disregard for liking, a new tyrant reigning supreme throughout the world.’
‘There’s something else you seem to want to say but neglected to say.’
‘Oh, yes, thank you for reminding. My country, like a cancer of heart, has always been a thorn in the eye, the side, of the world, particularly the rich part, the tyrannical part, of it. When it’s poor, there was contempt. When it grows strong, it induces jealousy, and, with jealousy, containment.’
‘Thank you for answering my questions. Do you have anything more to add to this mini-interview?’
The second the bookmaker stepped outdoors for his morning walk, a song came into his head. It goes, as it did, more than 45 years ago: 5555653256 / 123523163 / 1116161653 / 1653561651. In no time, the lyrics emerged: du yibeizi mao zhuxi de shu / zou yibeizi geming de lu.
He met two people on his way. A white woman. And a white man. Neither greeted him. In fact, ever since he met them on his daily walking rounds, neither has ever greeted him. The woman running. The man walking. Neither probably knows each other, either. Every time he intends to greet them, raising his face, he sees an averted face. He decides then and there to give up greeting.
As he walked, the bookmaker turned the first two lines into English for himself: ‘One must read Chairman Mao’s book for the rest of one’s life / just as one must take to the revolutionary road for life, too.’ When he arrived home, the first thing the bookmaker did was find the dead poet’s book of poetry, The Limit, and put down the digital musical notes: ‘5555653256’ on top of a printed poetry page.
Two words caught my ear: ‘invisible,’ and ‘silent,’ in a news item on PBS.
And I thought: But I have never been invisible or silent, only to myself.
The reader, of 30-odd books on a daily basis, not lonely because with books, spotted something said by Mencius to this effect that if the king commits great errors his ministers should criticize him and if he refuses to listen they should remove him.
The original remark sounds something like this in pinyin: jun you daguo ze jian; fanfu zhi er buting, ze yiwei.
He comforted himself with the thought that something similar might be done to the PM of a country where a national foreign policy was wrongly carried to the extreme, a country in which he had lived for so long without ever having any hope of ascendance, political or otherwise.
People ask me all sorts of things these days. They say, ‘How are you going these days?’ I say, ‘Not too bad.’ They say, ‘Nothing untoward?’ I say, ‘Well, not really. But I do turn my head back from time to time when I take a walk outside. Just in case, you know.’
One day, a few sentences into a conversation between an Aussie friend and I, old questions resurfaced about China when an old memory prompted me to tell him an anecdote about Xi Jinping, who was shown to be telling a crowd of Chinese Mexicans that ‘for one thing, China is not exporting revolution, and, for another, it is not exporting hunger and poverty, either. Thirdly, China never bothers you. So what is your problem?’ [See this article in Chinese here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/chinese/simp/hi/newsid_7890000/newsid_7895200/7895245.stm
I thought this ‘me’ is actually you.
The translator never understands why Frank, his friend, flew to Ireland direct without stopping by in England. Frank said, ‘No. I never go there. Never will.’ It was not till last night years after when they met again that Frank revealed his secret. ‘I don’t go to either the UK or the USA,’ said he. ‘I don’t like the monarchy. Nor do I like the way the USA creates trouble everywhere in the world and fixes it to benefit themselves.’
The next morning, when he checked about Brodsky, a book on him he is translating, something caught the translator’s attention. It goes,
In 1991, Brodsky became Poet Laureate of the United States. The Librarian of Congress said that Brodsky had ‘the open-ended interest of American life that immigrants have. This is a reminder that so much of American creativity is from people not born in America.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Brodsky)
Replace ‘American’ and ‘America’ with ‘Australian’ and ‘Australia’, the sentence would become ‘This is a reminder that so much of Australian creativity is from people not born in Australia.’ Why has he never heard anything like that, in a country where he has lived, on and off, for decades?
The news item the reader caught sight of first thing this morning on his mobile phone via ABC goes,
Israel, Hamas agree to ‘unconditional, simultaneous’ ceasefire in Gaza Strip
His reaction, immediately, was: There should also be an unconditional and simultaneous ceasefire in the war of words between China and Australia.
The reason is simple enough: If you intend to hurt, you end up getting hurt, maximum damages rewarded with maximum damages. Why do people think they can do death onto others because they are more right or assuming they are?
But C, whose Chinese wife’s name is also C, voiced his strong support for Morrison in his pursuit of the Covid-19 origins and his other political accusations, such as New Frontier. One noted the word ‘thin-skinned’ C used to describe China.
His index-finger was now pointing at a quote of Australia being ‘Western with a difference,’5 in relation to Asia, by Andrew Peacock in 1978, as the reader concluded that it’s actually ‘Western with no deference.’
Years after his death, Vin is still alive in my ears, with his voice saying, ‘In those days, the Chinese diggers were hated not because they were bad but because they were good; they were hated for their intelligence, their industry, and their loving-kindness, among other things.’
The footnote to that remark is hereby findable in my heart, or your heart. Check it out.
In Henry Lawson’s story, ‘Lord Douglas,’ some ‘enthusiastic reformers were charged with rioting’ because they ‘smashed three windows of the Imperial Hotel and chased the Chinese cook into the river!’6
Indeed, Mitchell—he could be any white Aussie man—is so unhappy with the ‘three months’ hard for breaking windows and bashing a Chinaman’ that he wishes ‘to sail away in a gallant barque.’ (p. 70)
One wonders if that is to America, a country with a ‘shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid,’ p. 17, according to Isabelle Wilkerson, where Biden has just signed the anti-Asian hate crime bill. (See here: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/20/president-biden-signs-us-anti-asian-hate-crimes-law)
Or perhaps China, a better country for him to ‘sail away’ to?
Just as I was wondering who to write for or to, the philosopher cuts in and says, ‘An author who claims to write for posterity must be a bad one. We should never know for whom we write.’7
The father said to his son, ‘In this new caste system, it is pre-determined, and currently-determined, that, one of your race, in the fields of art and literature, particularly poetry, will never be allowed to ascend to the top however many lifetimes you spend in pursuing the goal. If they allow you to achieve success, it’s tantamount to slapping themselves across the face and negating their own values accumulated over the centuries. Your fate is to be eternally shortlisted, or remain at the lowest rung of the ladder.’
And that prompted the reader to pick up a book he has read, Cindie, by Jean Devanny, in which William Lane, father of Australian racism, in the poet’s words, is quoted as saying that he wants to see ‘the eradication from the colony of “every dirty skin, black or yellow.”’8
Surreptitiously, the reader looks at his own skin and sees, to his surprise, that it is transparent.
The reader is happy because he has found the first reference to white people in an ancient Chinese philosophical text involving a debate between Mencius and Gaozi, in which Mencius says, yiyu baima zhi bai ye, wuyi yiyu bairen zhi bai ye, which, the reader and the translator, combined in one, turns into English as ‘the whiteness of a horse may not differ from the whiteness of a white person.’
You fall silent. You always fall silent. Even when you are vocal, you are vocal in silence. It’s like you had never lived in this country, a vacuum in which you read stuff from elsewhere, like Ducks, Newburyport (2019), by Lucy Ellmann, with this you’ve just read and underlined, ‘the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of.’ (p. 317)
Then, you read another one that’s also from that country, in this emptiness of a shadow, with this that you quoted, ‘The things that are seen, are temporal; the things that are unseen, are eternal.’9
The things that are unseen, like you, that are deliberately unseen.
The self-translator at work, turning a poem he wrote in Chinese into English,
Tell them that
We are both living a life that is not too bad
We are fast entering into the winter
Trees bare of leaves
In the early morning
There is only one solitary plane, flying in the skies
A Turkish proverb goes, ‘Before you love, learn to run through snow without leaving footprints.’
In reply, the dead poet says, ‘Perhaps you do the same before you hate. And it’s always a good idea to clean up your own arse before you start examining other people’s arses. If you hurtle shit into the oncoming wind, the shit comes back to hit you in the face.’
I received my first jab this morning. It was not till after that the thought came to me, wondering if the nation also needs an injection. If so, what would that be meant for? To inoculate us against the source country?
It was a thought followed by another: Who exactly should we blame for the two World Wars? Should we pursue the source country or countries to the end of the world, for as long as we live and for generations to come?
You are seeking to bury yourself, alive. You are seeking to bury yourself alive. You are. Seeking to. Bury yourself. Alive.
An exile in your own country. A cloud only. In your own exiled country. A country you’ve sent into exile. A country you’ll never belong to or in. A country, simply put, that is irrelevant. That has been breathing in its own death.
The translator, in translating the book on Brodsky, found parallels to the dead poet, from Evgeny Rein, a poet who ‘seems to draw energy from his outcast status,’ and who ‘taught Brodsky…to celebrate his own marginalization.’10
He further finds, to his amazement, that, in discussing Cincinnatus in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, the author of the book says, he ‘the emerging writer leaves his tormentors behind (he banishes them)…,’ recalling lines from the dead poet,
i paid my last respects to a land that no longer belonged to me
since then the home in my heart
has been sent into eternal exile
Immediately, the self-publisher of his own books recognizes the ‘tormentors’ as no other than the eternal rejectors of his work, the publishers, as one of them says, in an early morning email that coincides with the arrival of the new lockdown, from an anonymous country,
Unfortunately, due to the number of submissions we receive and the size of our team we are unable to give more detailed feedback. Whilst we’re not able to accept re-submissions for manuscripts that we’ve already viewed, please do keep us in mind for any future manuscripts.
In a parody of the same, the self-publisher replies in his mind,
Unfortunately, I am no longer interested in submitting anything to you anymore. I can’t be bothered wasting more of my precious time with my precious manuscripts on the likes of you. If you want to read my own self-published books, please do drop an email. Otherwise, due to the number of books I am about to publish myself, I am unable to give more detailed feedback.
All they ever want to do, the self-publisher says to himself, is to turn you into a commodity so they can do a split of 90% vs 10% between them and you in relation to the proceeds from book sales.
Years ago when I met her, the dead poet said to me, ‘You didn’t see my work published in magazines or journals or newspapers because.’ When I probed further, she revealed that a white enlightener had advised her that the best way to make oneself an overnight celebrity is to enter into literary competitions because once you win a big prize it means you will secure a name in the pantheon of literature.
It was not till long after her death that I have the fortune of meeting with her in a dream and hearing her sharing her story with me. Put in a nutshell, the story goes that she has never won anything although she has spent millions of dollars in entry fees—a poetic device, known as hyperbole, I guess—dreaming the dream of one day becoming a millionaire poetess in prize money.
In conclusion, she told me that she didn’t die by her own hand. Rather, she chose to die by dreaming. It’s not till after her death that she realised that it is a wrong dream that millions of people have been pursuing.
Watching a short video on FB on frying the shrimps that makes the husband and his wife’s mouths water, the husband comments thus, ‘If hell is where bad people are supposed to go and get fried in oil, this is then hell for the shrimps because people like eating them when they are fried and deliciously cooked. All life that is good for people is necessary torture and hell for the non-people part of things.’
The translator told me what he thought when he translated a passage by Brodsky on how one is necessarily exiled from ‘the worse to the better,’ and ‘from a cultural and economic backwater to an industrially advanced society with the last word on individual liberty on its lips.’11
He said that he did not agree with what Brodsky said. He said democracy is a fallacy; a tyranny, in fact. When he said that, he asked me to keep it a secret because he did not want to cause a controversy as democracy is a tyrant that does not like people criticising it. He said that he could never find a decent job in the ‘industrially advanced society’ of which he had become a citizen. He said that ‘the worse’ and ‘the better’ are interchangeable, with a gap of thirty years on average in between. He said that it means a country that was regarded as ‘worse’ 30 years ago may now be considered ‘better.’ He said that prejudices last longer than that so that people stuck in an ideological time warp tend to still hold themselves superior even though they have been knocked a few pegs down already. He said that the tyranny that is democracy has blinded their eyes to an alternative that could potentially work better. He said that if he were 20 years younger he would have readily headed back to China, his original homeland, to live and work.
‘Too late now?’ I said.
‘Well,’ said he. ‘At least I can translate books for fun, and for their pleasure, too.’
‘What about the “individual liberty”?’ said I.
‘What about it?’ said he. ‘What about George Floyd? What about Liu Shaoyo? What about Mi Gao Huang Chen? What about Lin Jun? What about Andrew Brown? Is that “individual liberty” of killing people of colour? Who owns that “liberty”? Who abuses it? Who owns it to abuse it?’
The writer, or, in his most elemental form, the putter-down, of only one character,诗, has nothing to say. His mission in life, if he has one, is to commit that one character to every writeable surface by writing, including the sky, the water, and the air. Years ago when he lived in exile by the side of Source-tracing Lake, he confronted the first appearance of morning fog on his bedroom window by putting down that character with his right index-finger. The direct contact with the skin of winter brought a thrill he had never felt before. Then, when he took a walk outside around the lake, he would see a fallen leaf that he loved and he would put down the character on it before letting it lie where it was or setting it adrift in the heavily polluted water despite its many living fish. He would sometimes write the character on the bark of a tree or the blade of a grass. No one paid any attention. He, in doing these things, never craved attention; he knew he would never achieve anything doing things thus, all the more reason for doing it.
By looking at the character, pronounced ‘shi,’ written in red, on the yellowing skin of a quince, he recalled how he had picked it up from the garden of a writer friend in a gold-digging town months ago and how the quince has been lying in his kitchen, turning from a green one into a half-yellow and half-brown one, the brown colour of rot encroaching on the yellow portion, threatening to swallow up ‘shi’ (poetry) any time, having swallowed it up by now and shrunken to half its original size.
The cutter, a novelist friend of his, has lived beyond the pale of his publishability. He gives himself a nickname, ‘The Cutter,’ because he can no longer speak his mind in his fiction, not even through his characters. Once he starts speaking his mind, nothing he writes will be published. The unspoken mind becomes the version of his novel, cut down from some 170,000 words to about 140,000 words, with a private journal kept in parallel, containing the cuts close to 100,000 words.
He declines the putter-down’s request for a look at his journal entries; instead, he shows him only one line that goes, ‘A total of 528 words deleted.’
He told him, too, that a publisher had told him he wouldn’t be comfortable with anything more than 100,000 words.
He said, to himself, ‘Literature is unnecessary if it is so number-sensitive. Or perhaps it’s a good idea to cut it down to just 100,001 words? The breeding of something like stupidity has gone viral in this country and its counterparts for whom literature is just another carcass to be cut to neat measurements, with everything, including emotions, to be tightly word-count-controlled?’
‘I am listening. I am listening to the birds twittering, whispering, like a fine drizzle, at the fast approaching dusk. Darkness falling within and without. Soon enough, the birds have gone into total silence. In their chirpings, there was something like years ago, when you felt at your loneliest, your most isolated, your most deserted, so heart-breaking, mind-breaking, time-breaking.
Memory-breaking. Why have no textbooks ever taught one about the multiple deaths one has to live through in one’s migration? Why has no one told one the simplest fact that even in paradise one necessarily has to shit, let alone in a country that roughly resembles ‘paradise,’ which sounds more like ‘paradies’? What is the cost of having one uprooted and replanted in another continent, one that has been hostile and that remains so, with the only desire kept alive to make as much money from its counterpart as possible?
‘I’m listening, to a cacophony of voices from the dead people buried deep in the land, every inch of the soil stained with their blood, who had wasted their lives pursuing the dream. In that cacophony is a voice that stands out for its clarity and vision, “we’re all jail-birds at heart, only we haven’t all got the pluck”.’12
From ‘The Great Chinese Loneliness’, a poem by the dead poet,
Listening to the wind in the empty door, the hollowness
Of the century, the full fury of the incessant working
Beeings, the constipated weather with unrainable
Clouds, four fathoms deep, the heart divorced
The bodies fragmented, far away, a lone voice saying
Coming, I’m coming, 5000 years and now
Basic living, from hand to mouth, from mouth to bums
From heart to non-heart, from mind to unminded
The door again, slamming itself against
The untouchable wind, celebrating the idea
Being no one
He said to me wondering if I knew there was a new poet on the horizon whose poetry was so popular that everyone was reading her. He said that it was highly recommended that I check her out on her WeChat Official Account featuring her poetry on a regular basis. He said that her fans click ‘Like’ which translates into money in lots of 50 yuan, hundreds of them a day. He said that she was passionate, running the entire gamut of human emotions from love to hate and indifference. He said that this was the time for women, a time in which women can do anything they want to, doing it better than their male counterparts, poetry no exception. He said that there is nothing much in what the male poets wrote; they are full of fears, the stuff they write is decorative, boastful but hollow and empty at the core, like someone who keeps talking but that has little to say and nothing new to offer despite the fact that the language is perfectly polished. He said that his own depression was getting better, with the coming of summer, with his daily wandering from street to street doing nothing, with writing poetry at the end of each and every one of his street sorties, and with his comment that he is someone who enjoys reading the kind of writing that he can’t produce himself, like an admirer who is content with admiring people capable of achieving what he can’t.
He was telling me all that over WeChat from a suburb in Shanghai. While he was doing that, I suppressed a desire to end the conversation by telling him that I was in the middle of writing, like an old pal who used to be doing that to me on one occasion many years ago.
The reader’s eyes lit up with a passage he had just come across, about the custom in Kara-jang, present-day Yunnan,
When a woman has given birth to a child, she washes and swaddles him. Then her husband goes to bed and takes the baby with him and lies in bed for forty days without leaving it except for necessary purposes. And all his friends and kinsmen come to see him and cheer him up and amuse him. This they do because they say that his wife has had her share of trouble in carrying the infant in her womb, so they do not want her to endure more during this period of forty days. And the wife is no sooner delivered of her child than she rises from bed and does all the work of the house and waits upon her lord in bed.13
As he found out, Marco Polo travelled through Asia between 1271 and 1295, more than 700 years ago.
Moving from one book to another, the former interpreter, now the reader, put down this in a diary entry, after he saw something to his liking,
Reading takes one to places beyond one’s imagination. In June 1891, Thomas Hardy wrote the short story, ‘To Please His Wife,’ in which Captain Shadrach Jolliffe explains to Emily, his first love, why he suddenly falls for another woman, Joanna,
Emily, when a man comes home from sea after a long voyage he’s as blind as a bat—he can’t see who’s who in women. They are all alike to him, beautiful creatures, and he takes the first that comes easy, without thinking if she loves him, or if he might not soon love another better than her.14
Immediately, this passage took me back to the end of April or early May, in 1986, 35 years ago, when I had just returned from more than a month in Canada, working as head interpreter for a Chinese delegation cooperating with an international development agency on the largest hydroelectrical dam project in the world, the Three Gorges Dam. The first experience was amazing when I took a stroll down a street in Beijing. Women, each and every one of them, seemed so pretty I was kept busy looking, forgetting that I had been very choosy in my selection of looks before I went abroad for the first time. It could have been the spring that had brought it on. But there must be something else, something unexplainable.
The interpreter, I happen to remember, was working with a number of interpreters and translators in that hydroelectrical organization. One of the older translators had been a Russian translator until the Sino-Soviet split in 1958, something that is mildly anticipatory of the near Sino-Australian split right now, when he stopped using Russian altogether, turning to English as his main language of living. Those were the days of bitterness, preceded by days of sweetness, in which Mr Zhou had told the interpreter how he had romantically met a Russian girl.
That then reminds me of the ‘thin-skinned’ remark, mentioned before.
Indeed! In my young days many decades ago in China, people I knew were so thin-skinned that sharp criticisms would lead to suicides; many had killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution, a very thick-skinned time for many as well as a thin-skinned one for an unlucky few, my uncle included. He had disappeared one night, only to re-emerge in a nearby lake in the shape of a corpse a few nights after. Now that countries become more thick-skinned towards each other, it is inevitable that there will be consequences, which brings me to my point about answering back.
A bit of autobiography here. I was a quiet boy until my pre-teens. I was clean; I listened to Mom and Dad; I got praises from them; I was silent most of the times. In sum, I was a good boy. It was not till the Cultural Revolution when I turned into a different person altogether. I had fist fights with other boys. I learnt to use curse words. I had temper tantrums. I was, in sum, rebellious. One of the main things I did was that I talked back. I no longer listened to my parents. When they gave advice, I didn’t follow it. When they criticised me, I criticised them back. I no longer regarded them as the sole upholders of everything good, right, fair and correct until, subsequently, they learnt to respect me as a mature individual with whom they could consult over matters of importance.
If there is anything good to be said about my parents it is this that they are decent people who are reasonable and fair-minded, and who will not insist that they are always right and necessarily so because they are senior and are my parents. When I became extreme in my rebellion it is Mother who would caution me to learn to co-exist in peace with others without isolating myself by antagonising them. Though they are long gone, I thank them for their exemplary behaviour as parents and their good solid advice on human relationships.
‘Why did you say that as an Asian you don’t have friends in this country?’ the interview went on.
‘Isn’t that true?’
‘Please answer my question.’
‘You pronounce “please” like “police”.’
‘My bad. But can you answer that question at all?’
‘I’m only stating a fact. Who wants to see a face like mine? Who wants to be associated with a name like mine? Who wants to spend his or her precious time with someone whose tradition, culture, language and everything that goes with it seems suggestive of corruption, decay, evil, bad intensions, unkind encroachments—actually, I thought of something else.’
‘150 years or so ago when they first came to this country, the Chinese were accused of being infidels, pagans, heathens, and idolators because they didn’t believe in your religion. You now prove them right because more than 50% of your young people have no belief in a god according to a research done by Monash University et al in 2006. Can they be also described as infidels, pagans and heathens?’
‘You are jumping the gun. Stick to my question.’
‘Why do you have a tendency to accuse people of this or that? Is that an innate Australian tendency?’
The reader recorded his impressions in the margins when he read Cioran who says,
For a nation to count, its average must be high. What we call civilization or simply society is nothing but the excellent quality of the mediocre individuals who compose it.15
The reader’s comment goes, ‘Was he talking about Australia?’
My son, our son, has, during the pandemic, stopped drinking tea, returning all the beautiful cans of tea to me, my gifts to him from China, his excuse being, ‘In a company environment like ours, drinking tea sets you apart from the rest of the crowd, so much so that persistence in it might be viewed as anti-social. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I decide to drink only coffee or mineral water. Pure Australian, mate.’
Over dinner, the man said to his woman, ‘Do you know this 50-page thing?’
‘What 50-page thing?’
‘It’s a publishing industry requirement that every novelist who has written a novel of however many pages, say 300 to 500 pages, must only submit the first 50 pages for consideration. What do you think of that?’
‘I think it’s stupid because it forces writers to produce their best first 50 pages in order that their books may be accepted for publication.’
‘On the other hand,’ said the woman, after a pause. ‘they may be right because if a potential reader picks up a copy and reads the beginning that puts him or her off, there’s no sale.’
‘Which is why most of the books you buy these days have excellent beginnings but shoddy middle and bad endings.’
‘Like a beautiful, well made-up face, atop a full-blown body.’
‘There should be a cooling up period in relation to books, don’t you think?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t read them anymore. What I do know is I have never heard of that practice in China; they are smarter, don’t you think?’
‘Not necessarily. You must know this that with a Chinese publisher, it is often not the editors, not even the editor-in-chief, that decide on the acceptance of a book. That is left to the discretion of the distribution people as they are the ones to make the final decision because of their knowledge about the market. The world is pretty much the same, operating on the same principle but in different ways.’
The translator has just finished reading a book of poetry without an ISBN number. He likes some of the poems in there, the way the poet is open about his sexual encounters or his lack of them, relieved only by his masturbation. But he likes more what the publisher says he wants to publish. Put in a nutshell, the publisher, of poetry books without ISBNs, wants to publish poetry deemed good enough but that is found unpublishable by legitimate publishers, ie. the officially sanctioned ones, particularly good works of those who can’t afford to pay ISBNs, each costing over 30,000 Chinese yuan (equivalent to 6000 Australian dollars).
A mini research by him soon returns information on books published without ISBNs in the West, too, the difference being they do that in China against political oppression and they do that in the West against economic oppression. As one commentator puts it, in reply to someone who was wondering if he could sell a self-published book without an ISBN number:
Yes, you can. Yes, you should. ISBN is a relic of prehistoric past.16
The professor wrote in his diary that he was impressed with the way students plunged themselves into poetry in a language they had only acquired and inadequately. But some of the poems they wrote in longhand were amazing, he was pleased to think, perhaps because of the way he taught them. He did not give them a definition of what poetry was. He did not show them examples of best poetry. He did not provide them with a list of works by the best poets to read. He eschewed all that. Instead, he said to all of them, about thirty of them in class: You are all poets, even if you have never written a single line in either Chinese, your mother tongue, or English, your potential father tongue. Today is the day I want you to write your first poems.
Afterwards, at the same time when he was feeling excited, he felt depressed. There didn’t seem much of a point pushing these students in their early 20s down a linguistic path that could lead nowhere, particularly if they chose to go overseas to an English-speaking country, say, Australia. As far as he knew, once you had a PhD degree in the humanities in that country you were barred from any university jobs for life. Indeed, that was part of his own experience, one that he wouldn’t stop sharing with his students, too, just so that they would know what to face when they decided to go there in the future.
There were a number of stand-out pieces; one would do:
I don’t know anything about Africa
I’ve never been there
Now that it’s in my hand
I recall having actually seen
Many Africans in my country
They are black, they are dark
And Chinese women love them
He thought of a character who pursues a creative writing degree, only to end up killing himself, in a novel his writer friend has written, feeling self-congratulatory about how he had survived so many deaths, literal and literary.
It was not till after he had spent a whole day wandering through the Gaoligong Mountains in the depths of Yunnan, in a taxi driven by a local cabdriver of Naxi nationality that he realised that all he had ever done was sing the praises of Australia. It was a country that gives the highest respects to the Aboriginal people, a ‘Workingman’s Paradise’ that accords the best financial benefits to its workers, a country with some of the best universities in the world that offers cheaper rates than its counterparts such as the UK and the USA, and a country with a unique landscape of unmatched beauty. Engrossed by his successful story of Australia, the Naxi driver wondered how he could find his way to the country, how much he would have to save up in order to bring his wife and kids with him, and whether it would be easier to go there as an illegal immigrant.
In his enthusiasm about a country of which he was a recent migrant, he fished out a poem that he read the beginning of to the Naxi man, in English, and knowing he wouldn’t understand because he assumed that singing praises, in whatever language, would sound similar whatever the contents, so he recited,
Of the dead trees lying there indefinitely
Of the sky watching them as if nothing had happened
Of a poem, written years ago, that emerges, copied, on the bark of a cardboard box
Of the wind that makes itself heard, all day, all night, like a see
Of the eyes outside that never try to meet, a twig, or two
Of a book with a page torn off, its shriek sharp, but no pain, no known pain
Of a laid leaf, half-transparent against the sun, half-warm, too
Of characters, transferred onto words, revealing, and concealed, revealing concealed
Of a desire for wordlessness, for cutting off all relation.ships, for sinking all of them
When he paid him, as darkness was fast falling, the Naxi man said to the novelist, ‘You’ve convinced me of Australia. It’s my next plan.’
Fragment of a conversation:
—I don’t know what we want. But whatever it is we won’t get it.
—Because we’ve got it.17
For once, because of his ethnic, and linguistic, origin, the translator allows himself the privilege of keeping Confucius’s words in his own mother tongue, like this“君子博学深谋而不遇时者， 众矣，何独丘哉。且芝兰生于深林，不以无人而不芳, ”before he renders it into English, as follows,
When a gentleman has great learning and deep vision but is not found employable, he’s not the only one as there are many like him, me no exception. After all, when irises and orchids grow in the depths of a forest, they don’t stop being fragrant because they are not noticed.
The translator says to himself: I like him because I’m like him.
Letter, from one novelist, to another.
After that interview was released with what I said, I guess you wouldn’t feel comfortable with my request nor would I myself, which is why I gave up the thought on its very emergence from within my heart.
Don’t worry. I’ll manage it myself. It’s going to be another single-copy edition of death and I won’t seek any blurbs.
Have a good one, Mate.
A conversation I overheard between the novelist and his wife, over breakfast.
N: It is beyond me why every novel I write meets with countless rejections before it is deemed not even publishable while someone I know gets everything published as soon as he finishes writing it.
W: Some migrants are more privileged than others perhaps because they came from a more successful country and a righter language, I gather?
N: In our culture, justice can only be done in yinjian, the underworld, where the Yanluowang, or Yama, acts as the presiding judge, to correct everything that is done incorrectly in this world.
W: You are becoming superstitious now.
N: When there is little hope in this world, superstition provides consolation to the eternally oppressed and suppressed, outcasts for good.
W: Agreed. If superstition is not even allowed, that’s hopeless against hopeless and we might kill ourselves right now.
N: Well, let’s put it this way. Granted that he writes 100 books and every one of them gets published and that I write 100 books and only one gets published, wouldn’t that be a good balance?
W: Possibly. That’s the price you have to pay for being in this country as an underdog, no, an underkangaroo.
N: No. An underpanda.
W: You know what? You remind me of something said by novelist Joseph Roth to the effect that ‘My books are not destined for popularity in any case!’18
And how I loved it when I read that Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, when ousted by his master, Tang Sanzang, says to himself on his journey back to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, in my translation, ‘I have not been traveling on this road for the last 500 years now!’, followed by an ancient wind. Oh, I thought you know.
‘An ancient wind,’ a gufeng, is a reference to a poem written in the ancient poetic style.19
Followed, too, by a dream, external to the Monkey King and to the time of writing, in which a white woman is asking for a short biographical note from me, only to hold me to ridicule when she begins reading it from the beginning to the end, in a mocking tone, blasting all the achievements of mine to bits and pieces. When I woke up, I realised that she was the rejector of all the novelist’s works.
Still, I wouldn’t mind offering my translation of things that I like, in say Zengguang xianwen, a Ming textbook, such as this,
Not even the cluster of bright stars can match the solitary light of a lonely moon.
Timeliness is not as good as location and neither of them is as good as human harmony.
It’s no good if you keep praising me. But if you criticise me, you deserve praise.
One more, and I promise no more, from Cai Gen Tan, a Ming book of aphorisms,
Things abound in the filthy ground while no fish live in clean waters.
Oh, I remember something that I mustn’t ignore, a quote of a remark by Qin Mu, about the Cultural Revolution in the novel, rejected by all, of the novelist about the same, which goes,
It really is a catastrophe. So many millions of people suffered from dire poverty. So many millions of them died with deep regrets. So many families fell apart. So many kids became hooligans. So many books were set on fire. So many places of historic interest and scenic beauty were destroyed. So many tombs of the sages were dug up. And so much crime was committed in the name of revolution!
In fact, this passage, I recall, is used by the novelist to lead his multiply-rejected novel on the Cultural Revolution.
For something so random and fragmentary, this is already too long to sustain itself. Let me quickly wrap it up like death, with this diary entry from the novelist,
Diary entry (17/4)
I have not written a single word. Things pile up, which is not an excuse. I urge myself to write at least a word each day and every day. But, at the end of each day, when I go to bed, I hear myself say, to myself: Forget it. I just can’t write anything. Nothing moves. Nothing seems to move. I keep reminding myself of the graves scattered over the land, ignored, neglected, wind-swept, rain-washed, sun-dried, bird-shat, mud-covered, people-passed, history-listed, name-unmatched, rarely visited, hardly remembered, sun-drenched, windkissed, leaf-touched, thought-glimpsed, night-merged, kangaroo-leapt, season-flowed, star-struck, God-forgotten, sense-numbed, smoke-soothed, none-loved, death-dealt, dawndonned, sun-tanned, sun-shuied, sleep-soothed, dream-drunk, rock-hardened, songsoftened, prayer-said, nothing achieved, gold-departed, never coupled, never reunited, never comforted, never apologized for, solitude-infested, heartstring-broken, hearthoughtsforsaken, brain-burned, sky-canopied, tree-accompanied, earth-bedded, word-unuttered, letter-unsent, bone-unrepatriated, mouth-abused, head-bashed, pigtail-pulled and cut, pastbelittled, future-ungiven, holed, holed, holed.
As the spreading cancer has swallowed up the character ‘poetry’ and is about to engulf the word ‘song,’ it’s high time we sampled one poem the dead poet wrote in Wuhan where he taught literature many years ago,
‘I don’t have any friends’
‘not even my wife
in fact wives are the least friends the least friendly’
‘I have friends though’
‘in the stars although they’re so remote
and in a little while I’ll become one of them’
‘crickets are also my friends’
‘they sing for free all night
although their voices weaken a little towards the end of march’
‘my parents have long gone’
‘they’re now side by side in a grave yard
although they weren’t even sleeping in the same bed
towards the end of their life’
‘life is much easier without any friends
you’re alone with your self, alone with your books
books by the dead who are the only ones that you can speak to’
Oh, I must have made a mistake because the other one, in my memory, sounds so different. Ah, well, let’s include it here, for comparison, then.
Luckily, after some strenuous search and research, I found the other missing poem, a companion piece written in Chinese, and, with the help from my translator friend, I got it translated, as follows,
I Have No Friends
I have no friends
My friends are all far away
Even when far away
My friends are few
Of the few friends
Not a single one knows my heart
Even if you count me as one
I dare not say that I know my own heart
Nearest to me
And on the edge of the quilt I cover myself against the winter cold
Are two of my only friends:
A glass of hot tea and this poem that I’m about to finish
Before I forget, I’ll tell you what the dead woman poet tells me last night in my dream. She says, ‘We’ll make sure that the heart of our values remains white and intact, forever and a day, in spite of all the coercion from our enemy. We’ll keep making their money no matter what. But friends we shall never be.’
I’m actually pleased because that seems to mean exactly the opposite as in our tradition there is a belief in what is known as fanmeng, a reverse dream, a counterpart of your ‘dreams go by contraries.’
These words: to rival China, to counter China’s Belt and Road, to counter China’s clout, and to counter China’s rise.
Why did they sound so ridiculous in my ears? Why didn’t they counter China’s fall? Why didn’t they counter the USA’s rise? What did they counter China’s rise for? Because China is World’s Public Enemy Number 1? Did China invade Iraq like the USA? Did China invade Afghanistan like the USA? Did China invade Libya like France and the USA? Did China create all kinds of imaginable trouble throughout the world like the USA? Did China’s rise signify that they’ll inevitably do that, like the USA? Did China’s rise only benefit herself, not the rest of the world? Did China’s rise need to be countered in order to make it small, to make it fall, to make it no longer influential, like before? Did China’s rise need to be countered in order to make the USA always sit on top, along with its Five Eyes Allies? Why did they never mention international equality and peace? Why did they never mention co-existence in peace despite cultural and ideological differences? Did they want to counter China’s rise so that everyone, every country in the world, becomes like the USA?
[187 words here are removed as part of self-censorship]
If China is World’s Public Enemy Number 1, why do we keep wanting them to buy our stuff and hating them for not? Why don’t we wipe them off the face of the earth?
Ouyang Yu is a contemporary Chinese-Australian poet, critic, translator, editor and literary scholar. He was born in China, and arrived in Australia in 1991 to complete a Ph.D. at La Trobe University. Since then his literary output has been prodigious and includes the award-winning novel The English Class (2010). His first poetry collection, Moon Over Melbourne and Other Poems, was published in 1995 and was followed by a dozen further collections. His more recent works include the novel Billy Sing (2017) and poetry collection Flag of Permanent Defeat (2019). His work is included in multiple Australian anthologies. Ouyang was nominated one of the Top 100 Most Influential Melbournians in 2011 and as one of the Top 10 Most Influential writers of Chinese origin in the Chinese Diaspora. His book of poetry, Terminally Poetic, won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards.
Photograph of Ouyang by Hashem McAdam.
- David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 18-9.
- Qtd in The Eastern Slope Chronicle, Brandle & Schlesinger, 2002.
- Alexander Solzhenitshyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Collins/Harvill Press, 1974, p. 37.
- Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, The Lies That Divide Us, Allen Lane: 2020, p. 17.
- Qtd in David Day, Claiming a Continent: A New History of Australia, HarperPerennial, 2005 , p. 402.
- Henry Lawson, Send Round the Hat, Angus & Robertson, 1924, p. 69.
- E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, Skyhorse Publishing, 2012 , p. 169.
- Jean Devanny, Cindie, Virago, 1986 , p. 64.
- Qtd in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, ed. by Robert D. Richardson Jr., and published by Bantam Classic, 2007 , p. 46.
- David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 31 and p. 32.
- Qtd in David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 40.
- Henry Lawson, ‘Lord Douglas’, in Send Round the Hat, Angus & Robertson, 1924, p. 75.
- The Travels of Marco Polo, Translated and introduced by Ronald Latham and published in London by the Folio Society, 1997 , p. 152.
- Thomas Hardy, ‘To Please His Wife,’ Life’s Little Ironies, Wordsworth Editions, 1995, p. 100.
- E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, Skyhorse Publishing, 2012 , p. 178.
- See it here: https://www.quora.com/Are-there-books-without-ISBN
- Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, faber and faber, 1990, p. 153.
- Joseph Roth, A Life in Letters, trans./ed. by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, 2013, p. 141.
- See吴承恩，《西游记》（新批本）。江苏古籍出版社，1992，p. 318。