London Chinese Science Fiction Group

LCSFG is a community for people interested in Chinese language science and speculative fiction (SF).

"Strange Beasts of China" /《异兽志》by Yan Ge / 颜歌
Translated by the Jeremy Tiang (2020)

LCSFG author event with Yan Ge in partnership with Tilted Axis Press
16th December 2020

Story Summary

"A whimsical and unsettling novel by one of China's most acclaimed young writers, told in the form of a bestiary.

In the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of which are almost indistinguishable from people. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed in turn, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought. As her research leads her inexorably to the City of the Dead and its secrets, she begins to question how certain she can be that anyone around her is truly human, or if ‘human’ and ‘monster’ are really such different categories."

Strange Beasts of China book cover a feather falling on a blue background

The author

Yan Ge was born in Sichuan, China in 1984. She is a fiction writer in both Chinese and English. Yan’s first short story collection was published in China when she was seventeen. She is the author of thirteen books, including six novels. She has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Maodun Literature Prize (Best Young Writer). She was named by People’s Literature magazine as one of twenty future literature masters in China. Her work has been translated into English, French and German, among other languages. Her novels translated into English include The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press 2018, translated by Nicky Harman) and Strange Beasts of China (Tilted Axis Press 2020, translated by Jeremy Tiang). She lives in Norwich, UK.

The translator

Jeremy Tiang is a Singaporean writer, translator, and playwright, based in New York City. He has translated more than ten books from Chinese, including novels by Zhang Yueran, Yeng Pway Ngon and Chan Ho-Kei, and is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Grant, an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship, and a People's Literature Prize Mao-Tai Cup for Translation. He has also translated plays by Wei Yu-Chia, Zhan Jie and Xu Nuo. He is the author of a short story collection (It Never Rains on National Day, shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2015) and a novel (State of Emergency, Epigram Books, 2017).



Event Summary

Video event speakers
Guest: Yan Ge; Host: Angela; with the enthusiastic audience
(This is an abridged transcript of the online event)

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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".

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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”.

Angela:
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!

Angus:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.

Angela:
Which of the beasts in the story is your favorite, Yan Ge?

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.

Ksenia:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.

Frederike:
If you had the chance to revise the book, which parts would you write differently?

Yan Ge:
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.

Angela:
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?

Yan Ge:
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.
这是前段时间颜歌老师的访谈实录(恰好是第20篇!)。再次感谢颜歌老师以及Tilted Axis出版社~

研讨回顾(略有删改)

嘉宾:颜歌;主持人:Angela;以及热心观众

(via our WeChat)

Angela:
非常感谢颜歌老师接受我们的邀请,能够抽出时间参加我们十二月份的特别活动!我们也要感谢《异兽志》英文版的出版社Tilted Axis为这次活动付出的努力(甚至慷慨解囊提供了打折码)。《异兽志》讲的故事发生在永安城,这座神奇的城市里生活着九种“异兽”,它们各有各的特征,也都经历着不一样的生活。

对于主人公来说,永安城就像是一个能够同“异兽”们邂逅、交流的舞台,她在这里记录下每种兽的故事,每个故事自成一章,最终形成了我们看到的《异兽志》。这是一种非常精妙的叙事风格,而且,在每一章的开头结尾,她都简要地介绍了每种兽的历史与过往,并且解释了它们与整个永安社会的互动方式。这一点让我想起了我们目前经常探讨的移民与劳工问题,对于他们来说,阶级、性别以及种族等等略显敏感的标签,都让他们在融入社会的过程中遇到很多额外的问题和麻烦。

从这个角度出发,可不可以请您稍微讲一讲这些“异兽”在整个永安城中的社会位置?他们为何出现在此,您又是为什么想要构建这样一个世界观?

颜歌:
谢谢Angela的问题,也谢谢伦敦中国科幻协会的邀请。其实大家也可以看到,《异兽志》严格来说不能算是“科幻”小说,我也并没有按照科幻小说时常采取的“世界建构”(World-building)等叙事技巧,并没有像传统科幻作家那样有意识的构筑某种“或然可能性”。永安城有一个现实世界中的原型,即四川成都,这也是当年我在写作时居住的城市。大家在读这篇小说的时候可能也能感受到,永安的地理特征实际上与成都非常相似:南部地区相对来说比较富裕;西部地区近些年来经济增长比较迅猛,因此吸引到了很多年轻白领在此居住;东部地区作为成都的老工业基地,有很多历史上遗留下来的工业厂房,这里很多居民都是土生土长的老成都人,但他们也是以工薪阶层为主;而北部地区距离火车站比较近,吸引到了不少来自外地的打工者。

总体来说,永安的区位特点以及人口分布都是以成都为蓝本。在《异兽志》中,虽然在某种意义上永安城中不同种族的异兽的确可以解读为来自外地的流动人口,但站在现实角度,成都毕竟是内地城市,并不是大多数农民工和流动人口的首选目的地。所以,在十多年前,我开始构思这些“异兽”的时候,我并没有刻意借助故事中的角色去探讨移民的问题。不过这么多年过去之后,我回过头重新再看这个故事,却有了很多新的启发,毕竟我目前移住在英国,自己的身份发生了转变,在某种意义上也成为了“移民”。这个过程里,我会产生很多疑虑,感受到之前未曾出现过的压力,所以在重读《异兽志》的时候,也会不自觉的将这些想法代入到故事当中,终于开始理解永安的异兽为了融入当地主流文化所付出的努力。这些新的内容都是我当年没有想到的,就像当年我不小心在故事中种下的种子,终于在今天生根发芽。这些故事中潜在的、我自己都没有注意到的元素不仅仅决定了故事角色的命运,也在冥冥之中影响了作者本人的生活。

Angela:
谢谢颜歌老师,我还注意到《异兽志》中很重要的主题便是人与人或者兽与兽这间的情感纠葛,而这些亲密关系也为故事中的角色建构了必要的叙事空间。除此之外,性别、爱情、生存、哀悼等多种元素相互交织在一起,贯穿了整部小说。您可不可以与我们谈一下,您是如何将这些时而沉重复杂、时而短暂俏皮的感情关系结合到故事中来的?

颜歌:

我前段时间刚拿到《异兽志》英文版的时候,一口气又把它从头到尾看了一遍,一直看到凌晨三点。我得承认,即便我是故事的原作者,对故事情节非常熟悉,我还是为英文版中各个角色所深深吸引。他们感情细腻,心思复杂,显示出某种不加掩饰的柔软和脆弱,传递了与中文版略显不同的情绪特点。所以我非常喜欢Jeremy Tiang的翻译,他为这个故事注入了很多新的内涵。前几天我们俩做其他节目的时候,我还告诉他说,从行文和叙事的角度来看,他的翻译比我的原创还要出色。

当我以读者的身份重新审视自己的作品时,我对故事中角色相互之间的对话、互动、冲突,以及他们的世界观,都有了新的理解。而透过他们的世界观,我也能感受到小说作者本身的青涩。我很惊喜地看到,这种青涩的感觉也被译者非常忠实地翻译到英文版中,并且完美地融入到了每个角色身上。最典型的例子便是主人公“我”,她在采访异兽、书写异兽故事的过程中卷入到了一次又一次事件当中。她在一开始并没有意识到整个异兽社会的复杂,因此心理上准备不充分,一些不甚成熟的想法也略显天真。很多时候,她的表达和对话会有些小矫情,会让她身边的其他人以及我们读者感到些许任性。所以,能够读到《异兽志》的英文版,我也是百感交集,一方面是因为Jeremy的翻译的确非常优秀,而另一方面则是因为我“作者—读者”的双重身份。在故事完成的十多年后,我能够以一个旁观者的身份,重新从另一个角度来阅读故事文本,重新观察当年的我自己。对此我感到非常幸运。

总体而言,《异兽志》的情节比较夸张,戏剧性强。那个更加年轻的颜歌在写作过程中完全沉浸其中,没有刻意控制自己情绪和情感在故事中的投射。其实从小说创作的角度来说,这种做法不太成熟,作者需要在自身和故事之间保持一些距离,这样才能够更好地把握故事的整体结构和走向。但我当时没有想那么深入,直接记录下了很多我自己潜意识中流露出的情绪。虽然现在的我有了更加丰富的写作经验,但在看到自己早些年的作品时,看到那种直接的、不带掩饰的情感碰撞,这些给我带来了新的启发。

Angela:
我刚才也提到过,《异兽志》的结构设计很有意思,每个章节讲的都是某一种特定的异兽,而在讲述这些异兽的过程中,主人公“我”也在一直不断认识她自己以及她所属的永安城。我非常喜欢这样的叙事方式,通过主人公与不同异兽之间的情感纠葛,我也得以感受到“我”本身的转变。

让我们再回到“异兽”本身。您在《异兽志》中加入了大量关于这些异兽外表和行为特征的直接描写,很多内容甚至充斥着奇幻色彩,比如喜乐兽,他们在生命终结时以凤凰的形象涅槃重生,非常绚烂,有着极强的视觉张力。我有些好奇,您在设计这些异兽形象的时候有没有在纸上画过草图?您有没有计划把这个故事改编为一部插画作品?

颜歌:
我非常同意你刚刚讲的,《异兽志》确实是一个依靠情节推动的故事,这与我的其他小说相比很不一样。在《异兽志》英文版出版之后,很多朋友和网友也都给我发消息表示祝贺和鼓励。有些读者受这个故事所吸引,跑去买了我另外两部译成英文的作品(即《白马》和《我们家》)。我其实也在隐隐担心,因为《异兽志》毕竟和我其它的故事很不一样,如果以《异兽志》为参考,其它的故事可能与读者的预期有所偏差。但不管怎样,希望他们能够喜欢。

《异兽志》在刚刚开始是以故事连载的方式出版的,是杂志《青年文学》的约稿,每月一期。整个故事的框架实际上受制于“连载”的结构,每章一个小故事,但彼此之间保持某种联系,是它们得以形成一个整体。所以,在那一段赶稿的时间里,我整个人的状态和故事里的“我”非常相似,有着一个又一个截稿日期,编辑也在不停催促。有一次我已经比预定日期晚了一个礼拜,我的编辑非常生气,打电话来找我,说“我们就差你一篇稿子了!”“只要你送来稿子,我们就可以去印刷了!”“所有人都在等你!”等等。

现在回忆起来,这些可能多为笑谈,但在当时我的压力还是非常大的。在我看来,压力最大的地方是为每个章节拟一个合适的标题,也就是为每个异兽起一个好的名字。我有意识地在“兽”前面寻找一个两个字的形容词,这个形容词需要捎带一些古朴的韵味,而同时又能被当代读者所理解。拿Angela刚才提到的“喜乐兽”举个例子,“喜乐”一词本身既可以看作古汉语的词汇,但又是现代汉语的一部分。而除此之外,像“荣华兽”、“穷途兽”、“英年兽”等等,都是我花了很多功夫才拟定的名字。当我定下章节的标题,故事本身写起来就很快了。

所以说,这些异兽的名字是我看来最重要的部分。当时在章与章的连载间隙,我只有大概四周的时间准备新的内容,我需要先花三个星期想出一个满意的名字,然后赶快再把余下的故事情节赶出来,整个过程还是非常紧张的,所以很遗憾,没有时间事先画出我对这些异兽的想象。后来我重新读《异兽志》的时候发现,我的这种赶稿心态有可能就是故事如此戏剧化、情绪化的原因。故事主人公一直生活在紧张、焦虑的情绪中,要赶快了解并记录下身边生活的异兽,这正是我在当时所做的事情。

Angela:
这样看来,Jeremy在翻译的过程中肯定也下了很多功夫来翻译异兽的名字。请问在翻译的过程中,您和Jeremy有没有讨论过这些异兽的英文名?

颜歌:
实际上并没有,我和Jeremy在翻译的过程中没有太频繁的沟通,因为我很喜欢他给异兽们起的英文名字,他的译稿我感觉不需要修改就已经很棒了。不过有一点我们的确纠结了很久,是在“千里兽”这一章。故事里的学弟钟亮对“我”说:“导师昨天早上突然发了疯,非要我去让你买樱桃给他吃。”这里有一个双关,“樱桃”取“应逃”之意。当时Jeremy在翻译这一段的时候也犹豫了很久,他给我发了很多选项,我觉得每一个都很好,但他总觉得欠点火候。最后,他把樱桃换成了“蒜苔”,也就是“Garlic Scapes”,取英文“逃走”(Escape)的谐音。

Angela:
在整个故事中,主人公“我”与她的教授之间在研究异兽的方式上存在分歧,“我”更希望能够成为异兽的朋友,通过情感上的交流发掘这些族群背后的故事和历史;而导师则更倾向于动物学的研究范式,将异兽视为某种区别于人类的客体,对他们进行解剖甚至其它伤害。这就是为什么“我”毅然决然地从导师领导的实验室退学,专注于寻找各个族群的异兽,记录并发表它们的故事。我尤其注意到,那种以动物学角度发展出的各种刻板印象,都在主人公的不断探索和交流中逐渐消解,她似乎正通过一己之力,试图影响整个社会对于异兽的看法。所以,可不可以请颜歌老师谈一谈永安城中异兽们所被剥夺的权力,以及他们在道德层面受到的压迫?

颜歌:
我们刚才聊过,《异兽志》一开始是通过杂志连载的方式发表的,很多故事情节和设定也在连载的过程中逐渐得到丰富。不过,有一点我是在写作之初就已经设计好的,那就是永安城的兽都不是真正的兽,而故事中写到的人也都不是真正的人。这其实是我的一点小心思,如果直接上来就告诉读者,说这个里故事我讨论了社会边缘群体以及流动人口等等,那这故事多半没有人想去看了。Angela刚才的问题也做了很多铺垫,主人公“我”一直在尝试帮助永安城的异兽,想为它们正名。但与此同时,以她导师为代表的权力机构则为不同异兽贴上不同标签,向它们施加颇具人类中心色彩的“凝视”。

从这个角度来看,《异兽志》确实在讨论我们现实社会中的种族问题。我是福柯的粉丝,所以在写作中时不时也会参考福柯的各种关于权力话语的理论。当我们在审视永安城的时候,我们需要勾勒这座城中的权力网络,以此分析不同种族的话语权重。我在故事的很多地方都暗示过,虽然异兽在身体上与所谓的人类有着些许不同,但总体上还是非常相似的,更何况永安城中每个人身体上都多多少少有着兽的血统,所以完全没有理由将它们区别开来,将少部分群体标签化,定为“属下阶层”(Subaltern)。这显然是一种“非人化”(De-humanisation)的过程,而主人公则打定主意,要去逆转这个过程(Re-humanisation),为异兽们重构它们的权力和话语,让社会听到它们的声音和诉求。

从这个角度来看,在主人公放弃动物学科研,成为小说家的时候,她也证明了福柯的另一个观点,即文学都是政治性的,因为文学能够替弱势群体发声,提高这些边缘人群的政治与社会参与度。同时,文学也能够释放人们的灵魂,个体不再是大数据中的一个个符号,而成为一个个能够共情的主体。从这里我想到了我们当下的疫情,现在各个平台上都充斥着各种数据,每日新增、每日治愈等等。但在这些数据表上,我们看不到每个个体所面对的困窘与焦虑,也看不到每个人付出的牺牲。令我印象深刻的是,在今年五月,《纽约时报》在头版上列出了1000名新冠逝者的姓名、年龄和身份,让大家重新意识到“他们不仅是一个个名字,他们曾经是我们”。

Angus:
谢谢颜歌老师的分享!我和《异兽志》英文的译者Jeremy Tiang有过一面之缘,那是在一年半之前的伦敦书展(London Book Fair),当时他给我留下了很深刻的印象。我想请教颜歌老师,您怎样看待这次同Jeremy的合作?您是以哪种身份参与到英文版翻译的过程中的?是现在的颜歌,还是十多年前写下《异兽志》的颜歌?

颜歌:
这个问题很有意思,在《异兽志》英文版出版之后,我和Jeremy一起参加了不少活动,但虽然如此,我其实并不觉得我在翻译过程中付出过很多心血。即便我是作者,那也是很久之前的事情了,有些故事细节我也记不太清了。所以,我很感谢Jeremy替我重新梳理了整个故事的情节,并针对英文读者做出了一些修订。

我第一次见到Jeremy是在2017年,我和其他几位作家一起去美国纽约参加一场文学活动。那时候我和他还不是很熟悉,打招呼的时候我随口提了一句,说您也可以考虑考虑翻译我的作品呀。这句话其实多半是句玩笑,但听者有心,活动结束之后他找到我,希望能够看一看我以往发表作品的资料。我给他发了几本小说的故事梗概,但他最终选择了《异兽志》,这大大出乎我的意料。他首先翻译了第一章“悲伤兽”,发在了Two Lines杂志,随后他又与Tilted Axis出版社取得了联系。所以,整个过程基本都是Jeremy负责推进的,我真的非常非常感谢他。

这么看来,我只能算是《异兽志》英文版的“远房亲戚”。但说实话,我对这本书有着比较特殊的感情。当时在《青年文学》连载的时候,正是我本人比较脆弱的一段时间。我的母亲那时刚刚去世,我只有通过不断写作,来逐渐调整自己的心态。于是我也允许自己不采取所谓“传统”、“正确”的创意写作技巧,把自己潜意识中直接的情绪流露真实的记录下来。这也是为什么这篇故事有时看起来略显夸张,而当时的我与故事中的主人公也因此产生了很强烈的情感共鸣。但时过境迁,现在的我已经经历了更多的事情,变得更加成熟,所以之前的那种共鸣也渐渐消失,成为某种过去的回忆。

Angela:
故事中的哪种异兽是颜歌老师最喜欢的呢?

颜歌:
对我来说最特别的是“荣华兽”,她们本质上是一种树木,在园林中栽培长大,成人之后皈依佛教,并在永安城中建立了一座寺庙。在构思荣华兽的时候,我当年想的其实是我的母亲。当时,编辑催稿催得很急,所以我在开始写每一章的时候,并不知道结尾是什么样的,我让故事中的角色自行互动,让情节自由发展。写“荣华兽”这一章的时候我也是这样,但整个过程里我却感到非常平静,过去那些与母亲相关的记忆时不时涌现出来,融汇在故事之中。我也因此在这个章节上寄托了更为深切的情感。

Ksenia:
《异兽志》这本书让我想起了《山海经》中刻画的种种神话传说,以及其中刻画的上古神兽。您在创作的过程中有没有或多或少对《山海经》的参考?

颜歌:
很高兴有朋友提到《山海经》!如果你读过《山海经》原著的话,就会发现我的确试着模仿过《山海经》的行文方式和章节结构。《异兽志》每章的开头、结尾部分都是文言文,这是我可以安排的,通过这种复古的方式,让读者体会到每种兽与历史的联系。故事的中间部分是主人公“我”逐渐发现身边秘密的过程,是小说的主体,我也就用“白话”进行描写。所以,在文言文的部分,我确实受到了《山海经》的启发。

Frederike:
如果您有机会修改《异兽志》的话,您会修改哪些部分呢?

颜歌:
我应该不会修改任何内容。这倒不是因为小说是完美的,任何故事都会或多或少有着瑕疵,但这些瑕疵却是作者在当时写下这些内容时真实的内心写照。我在回头看《异兽志》的时候,也确实发现当时的作者颜歌多少还是有些天真,写作上也缺乏成熟,但那正是我自己的本真,是我希望能够保存下去的。所以说,我的每本书都是我某个特定的人生阶段,在那个阶段写下的故事也就代表了我当时的想法和情感,这些全部都是我所珍视的。

Angela:
再次感谢颜歌老师今天为我们带来的精彩分享!在研讨的最后,可不可以请颜歌老师透露一下您最新的或正在完成中的作品?

颜歌:
现阶段我正在收尾一个英文短篇集的手稿,已经大概完成了三分之二,希望能让其在2021年与大家见面;在这个短篇集之后,我想接着写我五六年前没写完的一部中文小说。因为各种事情,这个故事拖了太久,已经到了必须要写完的时候了。做完这两项工作,我想我应该会休息一段时间,专心体验下生活,只有这样才能才会萌生出更多的灵感。