interview with xi nan

by nick deforest

I first came across Xi Nan’s work – both her original poetry and her translations – in Terror House Magazine. What was Chinese poetry, I wondered, doing in this corner of the American underground literary scene? And what a pleasure it was to encounter scenes of quiet, contemplative life in a media atmosphere in which the Chinese (all 1.4 billion of them) are depicted mainly as economic competitors or potential thermonuclear sparring partners. Where did this writing come from, and how did it end up on this side of the internet? I decided to reach out to Xi Nan with some of my questions. 

First, I just wanted to get some basic biographical information. Where do you live now, and where have you lived in the past? Where is your favorite place to be in China, and where is your favorite place to be in western countries?

Thank you for arranging this interview, Nick!

Having lived in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Beijing, I am currently based in Hangzhou, China, and occasionally return to London. Hangzhou is one of my favorite places in China, although I haven't lived here for very long yet. It was one of the first places in China to open up, and all aspects of its city management and social governance are comparatively modern and humane. I also like the humanistic environment here. 

I have been studying and working and living in the UK for 13 consecutive years since I was 19, so you can say that the UK is also my hometown. It is where I spent the most important periods of my life and where my values formed. But the weather in the UK is not good, it is often rainy and windy. I've been to a limited number of Western countries, and I like Barcelona, Spain a lot, whether it's their paella, the still sunny and warm weather in winter time, or their flamenco in small bars late at night.

Where did you learn English, and what made you decide you wanted to start translating Chinese poetry?

In my early years, like everyone else, I learned English in school. Chinese people usually have English classes from elementary school onwards. Plus the fact that two of my aunts were English teachers at the time, who gave me extra classes in their spare time, so my English scores were a bit more outstanding than other subjects. Later, I went abroad to English-speaking countries for studies, and further strengthened my English skills.

I would say it was fate that I started to translate Chinese poetry. About two years ago, I lost my job, and I was worried about my livelihood, then I suddenly got a job to translate articles for a cultural media, and a few other jobs to translate literary works, so I embarked on the path of translation unplanned. I write poetry myself, and I know a lot of poets among my friends, so it was a natural thing to start translating poetry.

How did you find your way into American literary culture? What was the first place you looked when you decided you wanted to start translating books and publishing them?

First of all, I do not feel that I have found my way into American literary culture. I do not have a comprehensive understanding of American literature, and the American writers and poets I have come across so far, as far as I personally feel, are mainly niche market or subcultural authors. At the beginning, I did not think of such a "big" thing as publishing books overseas, but just thought of translating some works and trying to publish them in magazines. Before my translated works were successfully published for the first time, I had received many rejection letters from magazines.

Frankly speaking, I decided to start translating Chinese poetry in a more systematic way and to seek publication overseas, because I found it difficult to integrate into the literary community in China, and there are many things which I don't like and can't adapt to, but I am also unable to change them. I then wondered if it was possible to do this thing in another cultural environment, and if it would bring different results. I believe that God created each person with a unique value and a place in the world. If given the choice, I would focus more on those authors who are, to some extent, and for various reasons, in a more marginal position, and I hope to give their works another possibility of reaching readers.

How do you find the people you translate? Are they personal friends of yours, or are you only familiar with their work? What is the literary community like in China?

Sometimes I take the initiative to select some works, and sometimes people who want to translate their works find me on their own initiative, some of them are my friends, and some of them just know each other because of works. In the future, I hope to have more initiative to choose authors and works that I think are good. For example, my friends Wu Chenjun (吴晨骏), Chen Yunhu (陈云虎), Zhao Xuru (赵旭如), and Gu Gui (古轨) are all excellent poets and writers with their own unique styles, and I look forward to the opportunity to introduce them, and more excellent poets and writers, to English readers in the future. As I've said above, I focus more on authors who, to some extent, share my discomfort and confusion in the current big atmosphere. In terms of works, I like contemporary Chinese poetry written with spoken language, and I like subjects that are connected with everyday life.

I don't think I have the authority to represent the "literary community in China" and to define it as a community of such and such. The Chinese poet and novelist Wu Chenjun (吴晨骏) says that this community is like a "jianghu", and I think this word is very apt. Or I can say, it's like a small society, in which we meet all kinds of people, "good" people and "bad" people in our hearts, people we like and dislike, just like what we'll meet in a real society. Wu Chenjun also says, people in the jianghu need to learn martial arts and other craftmanship from each other, so jianghu's existence has its legitimacy. But in this community, many times people still need to rely on "connections" and telling lies and using tricks to succeed, mixed with too many things other than literature itself. From another point of view, I think this also shows that the degree of professionalism of the Chinese literary community is still low, the rule awareness is still low.

How would you describe the literary climate of China? Are books influential in everyday culture, or is it more of a niche pursuit, like in America?

I think the current literary atmosphere in China is not very good, and there are many top-down taboos. Fewer and fewer people are reading paperback books, instead people are doing fragmental readings on their cell phones, and a new way of reading seems to have emerged in recent years, that is, listening to audio books. Fish Lu is very fond of listening to audio books, and when doing manual work, his ears are often plugged in with earbuds to listen to books. I personally feel that paperback books will not die out in the near future, but certainly not the same as their historical position and function; the future of paper books may become more of a nostalgic sentiment, a work of art. Or, perhaps, when the post-80s generation is no longer alive, paperback books will get close to extinction. The influence of books on everyday culture is obvious, but it seems that it has always been an issue of a small group of people and is now increasingly giving way to other medium. I don't know much about the situation in the USA, but it's certainly a niche in China, and many people have basically nothing more to do with books after they finish school or university education. But when I was in the UK, sitting on the subway, I often saw passengers standing and sitting around with a paperback book or a piece of newspaper in their hands, feeling very nostalgic.

What does a liberal arts education look like in contemporary China? Is it more rooted in utility or in the classics? And if it does concern itself with classics, are they the classics of the east or of the west?

If you mean school education, it is still inherited from the former Soviet Union, which is biased mainly to serve the ideology. And most people who are engaged in literature and art usually do self-education in addition to their schooling. For those writers who stray from the mainstream ideology, self-education is even their primary path of education. I'm not sure what aspect of utility you're referring to; as for literature, whether it's the mainstream so-called "official" writers or the so-called “unofficial” writers, what Chinese authors mainly pursue is still classics. But very often, utility and classics are often mixed up. In terms of the classics alone, it is mainly Western, because much of China's culture and knowledge system nowadays is learned and derived from the West. In addition, there now exists a kind of individual way of writing that is neither commercial nor classical, but purely for "personal" writing purposes, which reflects its value to the specific individual.

Specifically, how would you describe the state of poetry in China? I know that tradition is a big part of Chinese culture, so does contemporary poetry reflect a continuity or a break with the past? 

To be precise, I don't know how to describe the state of Chinese poetry, too. As I've mentioned a bit above, people usually divide Chinese poetry into "official" (who serve the government and the mainstream ideology) and "unofficial", but in fact the two parts are often not clearly separated. Some writers who call themselves "unofficial" can well be opportunists. I respect those independent writers who truly take an unofficial stand -- they represent the future and conscience of writing. Rather than the division between "official" and "unofficial", I see more different writing circles (写作圈子). These circles represent different writing philosophies, and even actual benefits. There are fusions and differences between the different circles, and some of them do not get along with each other. In general, I think the current situation of Chinese poetry is active, and it is one of the best periods since modern times. The downside is that there are not enough truly independent individual writers, many of them are eager to attach themselves to a certain circle / group and to socialize under the name of poetry, in order to gain greater (bubble-like) fame.

It is true, as you say, that poetry is an important part of Chinese cultural tradition, and has had its own glory in different periods of history. But this has nothing to do with present-day or contemporary Chinese poetry. There is undoubtedly a break between them. Contemporary Chinese poetry is Westernized, and many current schools of Chinese poetry writing have their theoretical sources in the West.

One of the things I like about your work and the work you translate is its very human focus on everyday life. Too often, in America, we stereotype the Chinese as materialistic and humorless, since we only meet the very rich ones who drive expensive cars to our universities or the very poor ones who live in our crowded Chinatowns. Beyond the stereotype, how would you describe the “spirit” of the Chinese people?

I'm glad that you like my works and translation works, thanks you very much! That's also what I hope to achieve and work towards.

I think your impression is nothing wrong. In China, for most people, material things come first, and the once long-standing poverty and lack of security has made the pursuit of material things a genetic-like existence for many people. Although material things are now less scarce, the polarization between the rich and the poor is still serious, there're people with luxury cars and there're very poor people. If people's lives become more secured and less polarized in the future, maybe that will change.

The Chinese "spirit", this question is too big that I haven't thought about it seriously before. If I think about it quickly now, my brain gets very mixed information after searching, it's like when you enter a huge food market and you can hear all kinds of sounds in it. You know, China is not a religious country, but rather ideological in nature, and not many people have a clear single religious belief. From my limited observation, the Chinese are more of a mix of various religious doctrines, social ideologies, and they're deeply influenced by traditional cultural practices, too, and in general, the Chinese are realistic.

Another stereotype we have of China is that it is an authoritarian dictatorship. Can this be felt in day to day life? Is it something that you always have to keep in the back of your mind? Sometimes I suspect it is no more or less authoritarian than any other modern state.

I think it depends on how we look at everyday life; if it is just to eat and drink well, many western friends already know that some Chinese people are now quite rich, no longer have a lot of financial concerns, and have the ability to pursue a more luxurious life. Then, if life stays at this dimension, the authoritarian dictatorship you mentioned may not be felt very often. But if we consider some more complex dimensions, for example, when writing, many writers inevitably need to "self-censor" their writings, deleting various "sensitive words" even before the editors say so; public publications, for example, currently still face a lot of censorship and restrictions in China. At the same time, a certain political system leads to a certain kind of corresponding culture. Some disasters in the history have passed for many years, but in our culture today, people still tell on each other under many circumstances, and the majority still excludes, bullies, and judges the minorities... All these permeate our daily life, and the invisible pressure is something that no one truly lives in China can escape.

Finally, what are you working on now? Do you have any project in development that you’d like to promote?

Recently Fish Lu and I have established our new literature studio in London, it's called Xi Nan & Fish Lu STUDIO. In the future, the studio plans to focus mainly on translating and distributing Fish Lu's and my own works, also taking into account the works by other contemporary Chinese poets and writers. Not long before, we've released a poetry experiment by Fish Lu called FIRE HYDRANT, and a hybrid texts by me called BRAND; if anyone is interested, you should check out the links at the end of this interview. We will also produce some eBooks in traditional Chinese and distribute them to Chinese readers worldwide. I may also translate and introduce some works of Western authors to China when I can.

Thank you again, Nick, for your time and for giving space to this very meaningful dialogue!

BRANDY by Xi Nan