Showing posts with label Sanmao. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sanmao. Show all posts

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

LI JUAN. Nicky Harman on a writer of many hues

I first came across Li Juan in 2016, when she featured in the Paper Republic post for LitHub online magazine, entitled ‘Ten Chinese Women whose Works should be Translated’. Serendipitously, two of her autobiographical accounts of life in Xinjiang have come out in translation within a week of each other:

Winter Pasture, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan (Astra Books, 2021); and 

Distant Sunflower Fields, translated by Christopher Payne (Sinoist Books, 2021)

Winter Pasture

Li Juan is a Han Chinese, born in Xinjiang and brought up in her parents’ hometown in Sichuan. Thereafter she moved back to wide, open spaces of Xinjiang and made it her home. The ideal person to spend a winter living with a nomadic Kazakh family in China’s Altai region, and then write a book about it, one would think. But from the start, the journey (made in 2010) which is the subject of this book, is not a simple endeavour. She struggles to find a host family who will take her along. Firstly, the Kazakhs regard her as an oddity: she is much too old to be unmarried and and does not do what they regard as work. Then there is the language barrier: she makes some attempt to improve her grasp of the Kazakh language, but has about as little success as they do with speaking Chinese. Some younger nomad couples are bilingual but, she tells us wryly, she is wary of sharing a cramped winter home with a pair of young lovebirds.

Li Juan is disarmingly self-deprecating, and that is part of the charm of this book. She reveals how hard she found it to endure the sub-zero temperatures and conditions so spartan that the only water to be had is snow-melt. Chinese female travellers have until recently been a rarity, and Li Juan has often been compared to a famous predecessor, Sanmao, whose wanderings in the 1970s have just appeared in English as Tales of the Sahara. The comparison seems to me highly ironic: Sanmao was writing about a truly foreign country, the Western Sahara. Xinjiang is part of the People’s Republic of China (although the nomadic way of life is a world away from the China inhabited by most Han Chinese). Sanmao was a born wanderer, Li Juan, by contrast, declares herself a reluctant traveller who much prefers to stay home. But perhaps they do have something in common: both women settled into communities where they are outsiders looking in. No one is more keenly aware of this than Li Juan. She admires the Chinese Kazakh writer Yerkex Hurmanbek who, she says: ‘taught me that I am a Han Chinese describing an alien environment, and no matter how close I am, I’ll always be a bystander because I’m not the same as them.’

During this winter trip, her hosts and their way of life continue to puzzle her. On one occasion, she is caught by strangers with her pants down – literally – while mending a rip in them. ‘What happens when these people who just barge into people’s homes encounter an even more awkward scene?’ she muses.

Li Juan is not just an outsider to the Kazakhs. She remains on the margins of the Chinese literary scene, seldom leaving her home to join the festival or speaking circuit. She has considerable standing among her contemporaries, however. The eminent writer Wang Anyi comments: ‘Her writing is instantly recognizable. It inhabits a world which is vast and lonely, and where time is endless. Humans have become tiny things that occur almost incidentally.’

Still, those tiny humans are subjected to close scrutiny. Her host, Cuma, drinks too much and is a bully, but Li Juan respects his intelligence. Ironically, it transpires that as she spends her time observing him and trying to work him out, he is doing the same with her: It was because he assumed that the only reason I had come to the winter pasture was to learn to herd.’  He is astonished at her apparent contentment where he is bored and frustrated. ‘Always walking here and there, what are you doing?’ ‘Playing.’ ‘How is walking here and there playing?’ ‘I’m playing a game of “walking here and there”. Unable to understand, he simply smirked.’

Li Juan is modest about her literary ambitions. Largely self-taught (her family could not afford to send her to university), she is frank about why she began to write:  ‘It was the only thing I was good at. You have to earn a living somehow.’ The editor and arts curator Ou Ning, in an extended interview with Li Juan, describes her writing as ‘genuine and sincere.’ She does not disagree, in fact she adds: ‘Hurmanbek gets it absolutely right in her writings … she’s taught me the importance of honesty and genuineness.’

I do not doubt that Li Juan is sincere but it is a sophisticated kind of sincerity. Her writing comes in many hues – she moves deftly from the lyrical to tongue-in-cheek humour to sheer joy. She is always sharply observant, and she can occasionally be tender.

Here she writes about the power of the landscape: ‘Clouds metamorphosed before our eyes, drifting from east to west. The endless sky, the boundless earth, left us speechless. Compared to the sense of loneliness the moment conjured, our weariness seemed trivial.’

Here, a deadpan description of the delights of food: ‘The only thing on my mind is that day-old, half-golden, half-tan piece of nan sitting alone on the kitchen counter. That is my one and only! That is my rock-solid truth, the thing that keeps me pondering, even in my sleep—why hasn’t it been eaten yet? Give it another day, it’ll get even harder! …If, when you reach for a piece of nan, you happen to pick one that is only two days old (the rest are all three days old!), it’s even more exciting than winning five bucks at the lottery.’ By this time we, the readers, have shared with her the harshness of life outside their burrow-home, so we understand perfectly the intense sensations of mealtimes.

And here is a poignant vignette: ‘Inside the dark burrow, a single shaft of light beamed through the only window. The sight of Rahmethan planting little kisses on the baby’s bottom; the sight of brother and sister discussing the changing of the baby’s diaper; son holding on to father as he cuts strips of cowhide, the two slipping in and out of song together; the little girl Nurg√ľn squatting with dripping-wet hair beside the stove, washing clothes . . . these scenes moved me immensely. But I didn’t dare to photograph them for fear of disturbing them.’

Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan have written an exemplary Translators’ Foreword, giving background information and locating the journey. They have also done a fine job of rendering Li Juan’s many voices into English, the meditative, the humorous, and the unflinching and matter-of-fact. In Winter Pasture, Li Juan has written something more engrossing and more thought-provoking than a simple travelogue. Between them, author and translators have given us a fascinating read.

Distant Sunflower Fields, translated by Christopher Payne (Sinoist Books, 2021)

This is an account of a season Li Juan spends farming with her mother and stepfather, two years before she travels with the Kazakhs. As it opens, she is looking after her grandmother until the doughty old woman dies at 96; after which, she returns home to help with a new project, growing sunflowers. As in Winter Pasture, Li Juan is droll, unsentimental, clear-eyed and occasionally painfully introspective. Also happily unmarried, something the neighbours never get used to.  She writes engagingly about the work (back-breaking) and daily life (spartan), as well their skirmishes with pests, pets and rival farmers, but it is her portraits of the three women (author, mother and grandmother) and their relationships that I found most impressive.

If anything, Sunflowers has even less of a narrative thread and context than Winter Pasture. We only discover the year, 2008, halfway through, and we are almost at the end of the book before Li Juan tells us that her mother speaks Kazakh and, in a rare leisure moment, gleans some spicy gossip from the local women. She gives almost no background information about how and when these impoverished Han Chinese families moved to Xinjiang and how their lives are interwoven with those of the nomadic Kazakhs, industrial workers, and government functionaries. We are simply there, seeing Li Juan’s life in close-up, so to speak. So everything depends on her ability to draw us in, to immerse us in her life and her feelings.

And we are drawn in. There is her pain: Li Juan is distressed about her inability to settle (‘I’m an expert at leaving,’ she writes) and about her difficulties in communicating with her mother. There is her bitterness about the despoiling of the land, ‘I have seen dead land. I mean, really dead – the surface was hard and blanched white. [The fields] were filled with the dead and decaying corpses of so many sunflower seeds from so many years before. The unrelenting sun had bleached them as well. I figured this was on account of the overuse of fertilisers, the unre­liable irrigation, the alkalisation of the soil, the overextension of lost and abandoned land.’

She draws us in with her humour, too. Li Juan’s mother is quite a character: she’s a biker who is as happy off-road as on tarmac; she rescues some almost naked hens and sews costumes to keep them from freezing until their feathers grow back; oh, and how could I forget this – she actually does the farm work naked because it is so hot in summer.

More than that, Sunflowers is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I was particularly taken with their guard-dog who is an incorrigible shoe thief. Once people began to realise that Chouchou was responsible for their missing footwear, we'd have visitors every few days, notice­ably barefoot, in search of their shoes. We'd direct them to the pile in the back and then they'd begin sifting through as though they were at some police station with a lost-and-found box in front of them. Chouchou would never be far off either. Usually, he'd watch them look for the shoes, basking in the sunlight, wagging his tail as they did so, assuming a posture of feigned indifference. Not only did Chouchou enjoy pilfering other peoples’ shoes and bringing them home with him, he was also quite fond of taking our shoes and depositing them at our neighbours’ places. It was a rather perplexing hobby to say the least.’

I was relieved to read that by the end of their season’s hard labour, the family have harvested twenty tonnes of sunflower seeds. As they wait for the bags of seeds to be collected, Li Juan describes a scene of rare tranquility, ‘The final bit of work in the sunflower fields had ended, and now all we had to do was wait for the day they were to be sold. Since there was nothing else to do, each evening after dinner, the whole family would go out for a walk. And I do mean everyone – the cat, Saihu [dog], even the braver rabbits would accompany us. Chou­chou, too, who always loved joining in the fun, wouldn’t miss out either, although his fear of the cat kept him some distance behind. There were also some chickens who tagged along, those that hadn't already settled down in their coop for the night. At first, there'd be a few, but they’d gradually turn and head back. Chickens, after all, had a hard time seeing in the dark…Mum would turn and pick up the few that still remained and carry them in her arms.’