Wednesday 25 March 2020

Reading (and writing) about someplace else: Mishi Saran

Nicky Harman interviews Mishi Saran, writer of fiction and non-fiction, and long-time resident of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Mishi Saran, photo by Tripti Lahiri

 Q: Serendipitously, I wrote about Xuanzang (Tripitaka) as a translator of Buddhist sutras in my last blog post here, and you have written a wonderful book, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, in which you follow in the footsteps of Xuanzang from China to India. Did you feel like you got an insight into his character when you were writing the book?
A: I was drawn to Xuanzang as a traveller who braved the miles from China to India and back. A Chinese monk with an India obsession, an Indian woman with a China craze; he and I were destined to meet. To follow his route to India, I mostly consulted two Tang dynasty accounts translated into English by Samuel Beal (1825-1889). One was Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang in two volumes, and the other The Life of
 Hiuen-Tsiang, translated from the Chinese of Shaman Hwui Li. 
Poring daily over those pages for month after month on the road, seeking clues to Xuanzang’s passage 1400 years before me, I became attuned to the cadences of Xuanzang-via-Beal; how little he gave away of his inner state of mind, how stringently he observed and recorded. Xuanzang’s biographer was rather more colourful, and inevitably, hagiographic. Still, Xuanzang was my travel companion, my Chinese guide who unfolded India for me. Not infrequently, I talked to the monk in my head. It became a game for me, to extrapolate human feelings from scant clues embedded in the text. I found fear, homesickness, wonder, a certain amount of gullibility, a good deal of luck. It is an astonishing record.    

Q: Moving closer to the present, you have said that you admire the writing of Zhang Ailing. What is it that appeals to you?
A: Zhang Ailing is a bit like China’s Jane Austen, if you allow me that leap, but Zhang is more intense. She is meaner, darker, more poetic, certainly more tragic. She haunts. [I haven’t translated her.] I’m too lazy to be a translator, and too greedy for afternoons spent reading novels. For pleasure, I read in English. My Chinese reading is laborious because my memory for Chinese characters is unreliable, which means I keep reaching for Pleco, a translation App, and the movement interrupts the fictional dream I’m addicted to.

Q: Your upcoming novel is about Shanghai in the 1930s. Can you tell us a bit about it? You told me that you had to translate a lot of original sources while you were working on it. When you think about writing and translating, do the two processes give you different kinds of enjoyment?
A: My present novel is set in Shanghai, largely before 1949, an idea conceived while still living in Seoul, Korea. I was preparing to relocate to Shanghai and thumbing through the Lonely Planet guide; an action that immediately and easily dates the scene to 2006, before smartphones. Since that moment, the novel has lead me through jaw-dropping adventures that I’m vastly grateful for. I write to know, not what I know. There has been an eye-watering amount of research, including translating some Chinese-language sources. A flotilla of interruptions interfered with the first draft, including (but not limited to) one entirely different novel, moving house within Shanghai, a child, a relocation to Hong Kong, the editing of two separate anthologies, a protest, a pandemic.
Compared to writing, translation might be the purer pleasure, minus the pain of a blank page. I collided again with translation, as one of the editors of Hong Kong 20/20 (Blacksmith Books, 2017), an anthology published by the local chapter of PEN to mark twenty years of Hong Kong’s handover to China. While proofing some English translations of our Chinese writers and poets, I was compelled to return to the originals for matching purposes. I thought that a miniaturist must feel a similar satisfaction, altering a single word, edging out a comma, squeezing language to its limits, while remaining faithful to the author’s intent. You want to remain invisible.
Near the bottom of this piece written to mark the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, I found myself inside a poem by Lu Xun, and attempted an amateurish re-translation. 

Q: What's special about Hong Kong?
A: For decades I have drunk of Hong Kong’s ease of life. It’s madly convenient to live here. Hong Kong retains the cosmopolitan churn reminiscent of treaty port life. The decency of Hong Kongers is undeniable, for this is a city steeped in Buddhist faith, overlaid with Christian morality; we have mosques, Hindu temples, churches of all stripes. Our people remain uncowed in the face of hard work. But Hong Kong ducked difficult questions, its soul robbed of speech by classic colonial manoeuvres from Britain, then China. That hole, in the place of a narrative, has always been too precarious a position. 
The proof? One serious poke in the form of youthful protests in 2019 and the whole construct crumpled, revealing our true gangster colours, the shallow-ness of the Hong Kong dream and the contempt with which we hold each other. Still, we have plenty of civic leaders endowed with a ringing sense of right and wrong. Most of all, we have our youngsters with their ideals, their art, their stolid resistance. They have willingly given up tender lives to brutality and bullets and in the process, snatched back some agency for us all.
“You are so mean about Hong Kong,” a friend of mine said to me. “I’m just mad at Hong Kong,” I replied. Our city has failed in these conversations. We waited too long to ask the question ‘Now, who are we?’ Hong Kong’s young protesters finally forced the issue to the forefront last year. Now, in our newly-collapsed COVID-19 world, there is a falling away of inessentials. It’s nothing but an opportunity, a time for Hong Kong to steal the story back.

Q: What is your favourite reading material? Is there a Hong Kong connection?
A: I’m always reading about someplace else. Right now, I’ve returned to Alexandria, and I am re-reading Justine, by Lawrence Durrell. Maybe I don’t read much about Hong Kong because I’m evaluating my own tangled relationship with my adopted home town. I speak Mandarin, but never properly learned Cantonese— a language I fully accept is sophisticated, saucy, ancient, subtle. I salute it from afar. [But when I do], I turn to the poets. Nicholas Wong’s work slices through the city’s jackhammering and unveils quiet humanity. Plus, at least he’s still living here. Increasingly, our writers leave. (In a fresh twist to this conundrum, Bei Dao’s body lives in Hong Kong, but not his heart, I don’t think.) Poet Mary Jean Chan is London-based — reading her is like walking past a mirror and  pausing to watch a reflected ghost. Novelist Xuxi wrote a whole elegy to Hong Kong, rightly accusing the city of not supporting its writers, waving goodbye as she packed her bags permanently for the United States. Mixed-race, UK poet Sarah Howes reached straight for Hong Kong’s mythic heart, but from a great distance. American author Jess Row, in his searing short story collection The Train from Luo Wu netted some crucial essence of Hong Kong. On my horizon: Dung Kai-cheung and Chan Ho-kei. Also, I might turn to the elemental Louis Cha Leung-yung (1924-2018) now that he’s been translated into English.
Mishi Saran's first novel, The Other Side of Light, (HarperCollins India, 2012) was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize.