Guest: Yan Ge; Host: Angela; with the enthusiastic audience
(This is an abridged transcript of the online event)
Thank you so much to Yan Ge for taking the time to join us for our December special event! We would also like to thank Tilted Axis Press (especially Tice Cin!), the publisher of the English translation done excellently by Jeremy Tiang. Tilted Axis Press has been great to collaborate with for this event and have generously provided a discount code to any of their titles.
The story of "Strange Beasts of China" takes place in the city of Yong'an, a magical city where nine types of beasts live alongside humans, each with their own characteristics and different experiences.The protagonist is a zoology student who becomes disenfranchised with its taxonomic approaches and drops out to become a novel writer. She encounters and forms strong bonds with the beasts, documenting their personal stories and collective histories. Yong’an is the centre of our protagonist’s encounters with the many beasts. Each beast is introduced by its history of how it came to be part of Yong’an society. These often bring up issues of migration, labour, and their challenges in integrating with the city and its people, and their class, species, and gender come into play here.
Yan Ge, can you say a little more about the movement of the beasts across this geographical and social mapping and how this possibly shapes your narrative worldbuilding of Yong’an?
Thank you Angela for your question, and thank you to the London Chinese Science Fiction Group for inviting me. In fact, as you can see, “Strange Beasts of China” is not strictly speaking a "science fiction" novel, and I did not follow the narrative techniques of worldbuilding that science fiction novels often adopt. I did not consciously construct a certain "contingent possibility" as traditional science fiction writers do. Yong'an City has a real-world prototype, namely Chengdu, Sichuan, the city I lived in when I was writing. As you can see when reading this novel, the geographical features of Yong'an are actually very similar to those of Chengdu: the southern region is relatively affluent; the western region has experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, thus attracting many young white-collar workers to live here; the eastern region, as the old industrial base of Chengdu, has many industrial plants left over from the past, and many of the residents here are born and raised in the old Chengdu. The northern area is closer to the railway station, which attracts a lot of workers from afar.
Overall, Yong'an’s locational characteristics as well as its population distribution are modelled after Chengdu. In “Strange Beasts of China'', although in a sense the different races of the beasts in Yong'an City can indeed be interpreted as migrant populations from outside the city, from a realistic perspective, Chengdu is after all a mainland city and is not the preferred destination for most migrant workers and migrant populations. So, when I began to conceive of these beasts more than a decade ago, I did not intentionally use the characters in the story to explore the issue of migration. But after all these years, when I look back and reread the story, I have a lot of new inspiration, because I am currently living in the UK and my identity has changed, in a sense I have become an "immigrant". In this process, I had many doubts and felt pressures that I had never felt before, so when I reread “Strange Beasts of China”, I unconsciously put these thoughts into the story and finally began to understand the efforts of the beasts in Yong’an, in integrating into the local mainstream culture. All these new elements were not expected back then, as if the seeds I accidentally planted in the stories are finally taking root today. These underlying elements of the story, which I did not even notice, not only determined the fate of the characters, but also influenced the protagonist's own life in a subtle way.
I also noticed that tenderness and emotional bonds are central themes in Strange Beasts of China, and these intimacies create important emotional spaces in which our protagonist shares empathy and a closer understanding with the beasts. Further, gender, sexuality and polyamory are interlaced with love, grief and survival throughout the novel. How did you come about combining these sometimes heavy and complex, sometimes fleeting and playful feelings into the story?
When I first received Jeremy Tiang’s English translation of “Strange Beasts of China” some time ago, I read it again from beginning to end in one sitting, until 3:00 am. I have to admit that even though I am the original author of the story and I am very familiar with the storyline, I was still fascinated by the characters in the English version. They are emotionally delicate and complex, showing a certain unconcealed softness and vulnerability that conveys a slightly different emotional character than in the Chinese version. That's why I really like Jeremy Tiang's translation, he developed a lot of new meaning into the story. I told him the other day when we were doing another live online event that his translation was even better than my original, from the perspective of the writing and narrative.
When I revisited my work as a reader, I gained a new understanding of the dialogue, interactions, and conflicts between the characters and their worldviews, and I could feel the youthfulness of the novel's protagonist. I was surprised to see how faithfully this youthfulness was translated into the English version, and how well it was incorporated into each character. The most typical example is the main character "I", who is involved in one incident after another in the process of interviewing the beasts and writing their stories. At the beginning, she did not realize the complexity of the entire beast society, so she was not well prepared psychologically, and some of her ideas were slightly naive. Very often, her expressions and dialogues are a little pretentious, which makes others around her and us as readers feel a little capricious. So, I have mixed feelings about reading the English version of "Strange Beasts of China", partly because Jeremy's translation is really excellent, and partly because of my dual identity as "author-reader". More than ten years after the story was completed, I was able to read the text from a different perspective as an observer, and to also see my younger self again. I feel very fortunate for this.
On the whole, the plot of "Strange Beasts of China" is rather exaggerated and dramatic. The younger Yan Ge was completely immersed in the writing process and did not deliberately control the projection of his emotions and feelings in the story. In fact, from the perspective of novel writing, this approach is not very mature. The author needs to keep some distance between himself and the story so that he can better grasp the overall structure and direction of the story. But I didn't think that deeply at that time, and directly recorded a lot of emotions that flowed from my own subconscious. Although I have more experience in writing now, when I look at my earlier works, I see the direct and unconcealed collision of emotions, which brings me new inspiration.
Let's talk a bit more about the beasts themselves. Your descriptions of the beasts can be very visual, and especially illustrative when witnesses hint at speculative sightings, like the reincarnation phoenix of the Joyous Beast. How was your own process in creating their designs and characteristics, for example would you sketch them out before writing, and have you wondered about developing the story as an illustrated piece?
I very much agree with what you just said, "Strange Beasts of China" is indeed a story that relies on plot to drive it, which is very different from my other novels. After the publication of the English version of "Strange Beasts of China", many friends and netizens sent me messages of congratulations and encouragement. Some readers were so attracted by the story that they went out and bought my other two works translated into English (i.e. The White Horse and Our House). I'm actually vaguely worried, because after all, "Strange Beasts of China" is very different from my other stories, and which may not be what readers expect. But no matter what, I hope they will like it.
In the beginning, "Strange Beasts of China" was published as a serialised story, which was commissioned by the magazine "Youth Literature" and published once a month. The framework of the whole story was actually subject to the structure of "serialisation", where each chapter was a short story, but somehow connected to each other, so that they could form a whole. So, during that period of time, I was in a very similar state to the "me" in the story, with deadline after deadline, and the editor constantly pushing. One time I was already a week behind schedule, and my editor got so angry that he called me and said, "We're your manuscript away from ready! When you send it in, we can go to press! Everyone is waiting for you!" And so on.
Looking back now, these were maybe mostly jokes, but at the time I was still under a lot of pressure. In my opinion, the most stressful part was to come up with a suitable title for each chapter, that is, to come up with a good name for each beast. I consciously searched for a two-word adjective in front of "beast" that would carry some archaic rhythm, while still being understandable to contemporary readers. The word "joy" itself can be regarded as an ancient Chinese word, but it is also a part of modern Chinese. In addition to that, names like "Rong Hua Beast", "Ying Nian Beast", etc., all took me a lot of effort to develop. When I decided on the chapter title, the story itself was written very quickly.
So, the names of the beasts were the most important part in my opinion. At that time, in between the chapter-to-chapter serialization, I only had about four weeks to prepare the new content. I needed to spend three weeks to come up with a satisfactory name first, and then hurry up to catch up the rest of the storyline, and the whole process was still very intense, so unfortunately, I didn't have time to draw my imagination of these beasts beforehand. Later, when I reread "Strange Beasts of China", I realized that this mental rush to produce the stories per chapter could possibly be the reason why the overall novel is so dramatic and emotional. The main character lived in a constant state of tension and anxiety, and had to quickly learn about and record the beasts living around her, which is exactly what I was doing at the time.
So it seems that Jeremy must have put a lot of effort into translating the names of the beasts during the translation process. Did you and Jeremy discuss the English names of these beasts during the translation process?
Actually no, Jeremy and I didn't communicate too often during the translation process, because I really liked the English names he gave to the beasts, and I felt that his translation was great without any changes. But one thing we did struggle with for a long time was the chapter "The Beast of a Thousand Miles". The student in the story, Zhong Liang, says to the protagonist, "My mentor suddenly went crazy yesterday morning and asked me to ask you to buy cherries for him." There is a pun here, "cherry" means "should escape". Jeremy hesitated for a long time when translating this paragraph, he sent me a lot of options, and I thought every one of them was good, but he always felt that it lacked some fire. In the end, he replaced the cherry with "Garlic Scapes", which means "Escape".
Throughout the story, there is a divide between our protagonist’s aim to sensitively portray the different beasts - in order to better understand how to relate to them - and her professor and perhaps the rest of human society, who seek to inhumanely analyse and categorise the beasts into taxonomies. (we see this in learning the protagonist quit her zoology course to write romance novels, then began to write beast tales although they don’t sell well) I find the zoology and conservationist’s approaches in describing each chapter’s beast is undone by the protagonist’s more personal interactions with them. How did you navigate the story’s portrayal of ethics and rights for the beasts, surviving within an often neglectful, objectifying human society?
As "Strange Beasts of China" was initially published as a magazine serial, many of the storylines and settings were gradually enriched during the serialisation process. However, there is one thing that I have designed at the beginning of writing, that is, the beasts in Yong'an City are not real beasts, and the people written in the story are not real people. This is actually a little bit of my mind, if I tell the reader directly that this story I discuss the marginalised groups of society and the transient population, no one will want to read this story. The protagonist has been trying to assist the beasts of Yong'an City in bringing them justice. But at the same time, the dominant and oppressive power structures represented by her mentor labels different beasts with varying labels that impose a rather anthropocentric "gaze" onto them.
From this point of view, "Strange Beasts of China" is indeed discussing the issue of race in our real society. I am a fan of Foucault, so from time to time I also refer to Foucault's various theories about power discourse in my writing. When we look at the city of Yong'an, we need to outline the network of power in the city as a way to analyse the weight of racial discourses. As I have implied in many parts of the story, although the beasts are physically different from the so-called humans, they are still very similar in general, not to mention the fact that everyone in Yong'an City has more or less beast blood in their bodies, so there is absolutely no reason to differentiate them and label a few groups as "subaltern”. This is obviously a process of de-humanisation, and the protagonist is determined to reverse this process (re-humanisation), to reconstruct their power and discourse for the beasts, and to make their voices and demands heard by society.
From this perspective, when the protagonist gives up her zoological research to become a novelist. She also proves another point of Foucault, that literature is political, because it can give voice to the underprivileged and increase the political and social participation of these marginalised people. At the same time, literature can also release people's souls, and the individual is no longer an anonymous symbol in big data, but a subject capable of empathy. From here I think of our current pandemic, where various platforms are now flooded with data, daily additions, daily cures, and so on. But on these data sheets, we do not see the distress and anxiety faced by each individual, nor the sacrifices made by each person. What struck me was that in May of this year, the New York Times listed the names, ages and identities of the 1,000 recently passed on its front page, bringing back the awareness that "they are not just names, they were us”.
Thanks for these insightful remarks, Yan Ge. I’m sure everyone this evening appreciates hearing about your creative process and personal thoughts about the story, both at the time of writing and now in retrospect too. We’ll now open up the discussion to our attendees!
Thank you, Yan Ge, for sharing! I met Jeremy Tiang, the English translator of your novel, a year and a half ago at the London Book Fair, and I was very impressed with him. I would like to ask what you think of this collaboration with Jeremy. In what capacity were you involved in the English translation process? Does the translation represent the current Yan Ge, or the Yan Ge who wrote "Strange Beasts of China" more than ten years ago?
That's an interesting question. After the publication of the English version of "Strange Beasts of China", I participated in quite a few events with Jeremy, but despite that, I don't really feel like I put a lot of effort into the translation process. Even if I was the author, it was a long time ago, and I don't remember some of the story details very well. So I'm grateful to Jeremy for reorganising the whole story for me and making some revisions for English readers.
I first met Jeremy in 2017, when I went to a literary event in New York City, USA, with a few other writers. I was not very familiar with him at that time, and when I said hello, I casually mentioned that he could also consider translating my work. After the event, he approached me and asked me to take a look at the materials of my past published works. I sent him the synopses of several novels, but he finally chose "Strange Beasts of China", which was very surprising to me. He first translated the first chapter, "Sorrowful Beasts" and posted it in Two Lines magazine, and then he got in touch with Tilted Axis Press. So, Jeremy was basically responsible for the whole process, and I'm really, really grateful to him.
So it seems that I'm only a "distant relative" of the English "Strange Beasts of China". But to be honest, I have a special feeling about this book. When it was serialised in Young People's Literature, I was at a very vulnerable time for myself. My mother had just died, and I had to gradually adjust my mentality by writing constantly. So I gave myself permission not to adopt the so-called "traditional" and "correct" creative writing techniques, and to record my subconscious direct emotional outpourings in a realistic way. That's why this story sometimes seems slightly exaggerated, and I had a strong emotional resonance with the main character at the time. But time has changed, and now I have experienced more things and become more mature, so the previous kind of resonance has gradually disappeared and become some kind of past memory.
Which of the beasts in the story is your favorite, Yan Ge?
That would be the Flourishing Beasts They are essentially trees that are cultivated in gardens, and when they become adults, they convert to Buddhism and build a temple in Yong'an City. When I conceived the idea of the Rong Hua Beasts, I was actually thinking of my mother. At that time, my editor was in a hurry, so when I started writing each chapter, I didn't know how it would end, and I let the characters in the story interact with each other and let the plot develop freely. This was also the case when I wrote the chapter "The Beast of Glory", but I felt very calm during the whole process, as memories of my mother's past came up from time to time and merged into the story. I felt a deeper sense of emotion in this chapter as a result.
The book "Strange Beasts of China" reminds me of the myths and legends portrayed in the "Shan Hai Jing" (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), a Chinese classic text on the mythic geography and beasts. Did you make any reference to “Shan Hai Jing” to a greater or lesser extent in the process of creation?
I'm glad someone has mentioned the Shan Hai Jing! If you've read the original, you'll see that I did try to imitate the style and chapter structure of Shan Hai Jing. The opening and closing sections of each chapter of "Strange Beasts of China" are in classical Chinese, a literary language, which is something I arranged to make the reader appreciate the connection between each beast and history through this traditional approach. The middle part of the chapter is the process of the protagonist’s gradual discovering of the beasts’ secrets, so I also use "vernacular" to describe it. So, I was really inspired by the Shan Hai Jing in the literary part.
If you had the chance to revise the book, which parts would you write differently?
I wouldn’t change anything. It's not because the novel is perfect, any story would have some flaws, but these flaws are a true reflection of the author's heart at the time of writing. When I look back at "Strange Beasts of China", I do find that myself, as an author, was still somewhat naive and lacked maturity in my writing. But that is my own truth, which I hope to preserve. So each of my books is a particular stage of my life, and they represent my thoughts and feelings at that time, all of which I cherish.
Thank you again, Yan Ge, for your wonderful sharing with us today! Finally, would you like to mention your latest work or works in progress we may look forward to please?
At this stage, I am finishing the manuscript of a short story collection in English, which is about two-thirds finished, and I hope to have it available to everyone in 2021. Because of various things, this story has been delayed for too long, but now the time has come for it to be finished. After these two tasks, I think I should take a break and focus on experiencing life, which is the only way to generate more inspiration.