Celebrated Chinese author Yan Ge published her English-language debut, a hard-to-define collection of stories travelling from ancient China to present-day Europe, told through the lenses of vastly different characters. Sailing through different languages, terrains, and time frames, Yan Ge demonstrates her range. She establishes herself as a refreshing voice in diasporic literature, not that of second-generation identity dilemma but of ongoing migration, voluntary exile, and the messy entanglement with the home country.
She tells the stories of outsiders: a vegetarian author observing the extravagant and disturbing feasts amid the aftermath of an earthquake, a Chinese woman experiencing nonchalance from her Irish husband and micro-aggressions in a foreign land, a banished intellectual pondering on his impending death, a disciple of Confucius striving for reform while confronted with the hypocrisy and atrocity of the institution… All these characters find unity in their aching sensitivity over the carelessness of others. One notable motif in most of her stories is the concept of the ‘mother’: motherland, mother tongue, losing one’s mother, and becoming and unbecoming a mother. Yan Ge showcases her brilliance in capturing the universal human condition and her mastery of writing even in a second language.
Yan Ge also writes in an unapologetically Chinese, or at least, bilingual way. She alludes to key dates and historical events, quotes from ancient Chinese poems, and liberally uses phrases in Mandarin without translations. This results in something coded, almost abstruse to those unfamiliar with the language or history. She conveys a sense of defiance in having English-speakers do the homework, just like readers outside the Anglosphere always have to do. Particularly, in the last and longest story of the book, Hai, her thick descriptions and the ambition to exhibit the complexity of Confucianism can create an enigma that requires great patience from the readers. As a Chinese reader, I also had to resort to external references when encountering the myriad names and historical events, so I am deeply curious to know how others would experience this book differently. But once you step out of the labyrinth and gaze back at the intricacy, you will most certainly find the journey to be rewarding.