Sinophone Women Write Better
By Lucas Klein, published
Or they get translated better, if not more—at least in 2014. Now that prize season is upon us, we get a chance to see which, if any, Chinese writers in translation are making an impression on the judges. This year, with Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist nominations for Can Xue 残雪, Qiu Miaojin 邱妙津, and Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, a Best Translated Book Award longlisting in poetry for Hsia Yü 夏宇, a Griffin Prize shortlisting for Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, and a Newman Prize for Chinese Literature for Chu T’ien-wen朱天文, two points pop out: all nominees are women, and of the six a stark majority are from outside the PRC—which means some would call them “sinophone,” a potentially broader category than just “Chinese.”*
Sure, the recent spate of prizes should also include Bei Dao 北島—whose life outside the PRC for the past few decades might also make him a global sinophone rather than a Chinese writer, as well—but his Golden Wreath award from the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts honors a lifetime achievement, rather than a particular book published in translation in 2014 (Chu’s Newman prize is also for a career-length body of work). Nor do the recent international honorees of Chinese or sinophone literature, like Nobel laureates Gao Xingjian 高行健 (2000) and Mo Yan莫言 (2012), mean that men are dead as far as writing in Chinese is concerned. But it is worth considering for a moment: why do women seem to be getting the honors right now, and why might writing in Chinese from outside China have an edge in getting international recognition?
Does the fact that writing from outside China is at least as likely as mainland literature to get international recognition suggest, perhaps, that the themes and styles of non-PRC writers are more in line with what the rest of the world (or at least certain parts of the English-speaking world) expect and desire in literature? Writers from mainland China may read a different set of writers, and may gear their understanding of literature to the projections those readings cast. Are the themes and concerns and hang-ups of mainland writers holding them back? Does that mean that mainland Chinese writers should get in line, as it were, and do more to 与世界接轨? Or should PRC writers relish the notion that they’re not part of the globalization of literature, since China produces enough cheap crap for export as it is?
My own translation activity is both decidedly male-heavy and titled toward mainland writers, so I’m certainly not suggesting that women’s writing or non-PRC literature is always better, but neither am I in the slightest lamenting the current trends of recognition (if it isn’t premature to call them trends). On the contrary, I will say that to the extent that women’s writing allows us to form similar questions and conclusions—are women better tuned into what’s going on in literature around the world? Are men’s themes in Chinese literature holding them back?—I’m more ready to believe that the conversations veer positive. In fact, as one anecdote I heard recently suggests, if male Chinese writers are not reading the work of their female sinophone colleagues and forebears, it’s to the detriment of their own writing. The heavy testosterone of Mo Yan’s or Gao Xingjian’s narratives, both in voice and in content, may not quite be sexist or misogynistic, but it does represent a failure of these writers to step outside themselves and their own experiences. Perhaps Chinese women, recently, have been better at that.
Of course, these are also prizes for works in translation, and therefore honor the work of the translators. With the exception of the Newman prize (Chu T’ien-wen, I believe, has primarily been translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt), the prizes under discussion are designed to honor the translators—Annelise Finegan Wasmoen for Can Xue, Ari Larissa Heinrich for Qiu, Nicky Harman for Tse, Steve Bradbury for Hsia Yü, and Eleanor Goodman for Wang—as much as they are to honor the authors (more women than men in that list of translators, too). Without excellent translations such as these, no writing could be eligible for these prizes.
One point that I should mention, though: women’s writing from Chinese and sinophone literature was not translated into English more than men’s literature in 2014. As Margaret Carson pointed out to me, the Three Percent database lists 28 titles from Chinese published in English in ’14, only eight (or 28%) of which were by women (for more on the imbalance of male to female writers in English translation, see this Translationista post). For five of these eight titles to be within shooting distance of winning major prizes is testament to the quality of both these women writers and their translators—and a very clear argument that more writing by Chinese and sinophone women needs to be translated into English!