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August 13, 2020

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Short stories probe our dimly lit crannies

THE world is ending. One man in Shanghai is determined to return his book to Shanghai Library, intending to draw a perfect conclusion to the world’s civilization. The last thing he hears is that a group of paranoid people are eating the most precious books in the library.

This end-of-world story is the concluding work in “The Book of Shanghai — a City in Short Fiction,” which was recently published by Manchester, UK-based Comma Press.

The anthology of 10 novellas by 10 Shanghai-based authors gives readers different perspectives on the city, exploring forgotten corners.

“State of Trance,” the end-of-world story by 39-year-old Chen Qiufan, or Stanley Chen, was partially written using artificial intelligence software. Chen’s 2013 science fiction work “Waste Tide” was published in English by Tor Books last October and already is in reprint.

“State of Trance” is a world away from the book’s first story, “Ah Fang’s Lamp,” written by Wang Anyi, 66. She is best known for her novel “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.”

Writing from a first-person perspective, Wang records detailed, realistic observations of ordinary lives behind seemingly identical doors in the narrowest street of the city.

“State of Trance” and “Ah Fang’s Lamp” are the bookends of eight more stories in the anthology. They span mystery, family drama, suspense and experimental writing.

“A true map of the city should not chart only landmarks and the most popular tourist sites,” the book’s editors wrote in the preface. “It must guide readers through the city’s lesser-known corners, its dimly lit nooks and unfrequented crannies. That is to say, a literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.”

“The Book of Shanghai” is somewhat of a rarity in contemporary Chinese literature because it was initiated by a foreign publisher. The book is part of the publisher’s “Reading the City” series, which has published 20 anthologies of short stories from places like Havana, Tokyo, Rio, and Tehran.

“We chose Shanghai specifically because of its reputation — stretching from the Golden Age — as a melting pot of different influences, lifestyles, and perspectives,” Ra Page, founder and editorial manager of Comma Press, told Shanghai Daily.

“As a port city, it looks in both directions — inwards to China and outwards to the rest of the world,” he added. “That always produces a very unique character for a city.”

“Unique character” was one of the selection criteria imposed on the book’s editors, Jin Li and Dai Congrong, professors from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Shanghai Fudan University. “Diversity” was another strong requirement for choosing the content of the book.

“We looked for stories that couldn’t possibly happen in other cities,” said Jin, who is also a literary critic. “I didn’t want to show the city in the perspective of skyscrapers on the Bund, like Hollywood movies ‘Transformers 2’ or ‘Mission Impossible 3.’ That’s what foreign viewers have already seen and know about Shanghai — a very globalized and homogenous perspective of the city.”

The editors sought works of no more 8,000 words and living authors reflecting on contemporary China since 1950.

The detailed requirements enabled Jin to narrow candidates down to a shortlist of 15 stories. Some excellent authors he considered a must for publishing stories on Shanghai simply didn’t have works that fit the designated length.

Range of authors

“The final selection really reflects the vitality and futuristic features of the city,” Jin said. “I intentionally included about half of authors born after 1980s in the initial list of 15, and many made it into the book. It was important for me to show a range of authors and their creative energy in a city where new talent and new works appear constantly.”

Jin particularly recommends Wang Zhanhei, born in 1991, the youngest author in the book. Wang, he said, continuously pays attention to older neighborhoods and their residents, which are often overlooked by even locals.

In Wang’s “The Story of Ah-Ming,” the author follows an old lady named Ah-Ming as she collects recyclables to make extra money for her son and his family.

According to Page, some reviewers have said the Shanghai book is their favorite among the “Reading the City” anthologies.

“That’s high praise indeed,” he said. “I think most readers have been surprised and impressed by the diversity of styles, the level of experimentation and the humor in the stories. The book is testimony to a much wider community and writing tradition in Shanghai. We are extremely pleased to be able to showcase that to the world.”

The publisher’s discovery of previously unknown writers is leading to other possible collaborations. Page said Comma Press has already been in talks with Shen Dacheng, a Shanghai writer in her 40s, and may commission new works from several other writers in the book.

“People have always wanted to read works from other cultures and from different perspectives, and that is especially true now,” Page said. “We know that the way foreign cultures are depicted in our national media is often a misrepresentation; it is passed through political or cultural filters that serve the media and not the audience.”

He added, “That’s why literature — fiction especially — is so important. It isn’t trying to convince you of anything because it admits from the start that it’s just fiction. With so many walls and divisions being erected right now, we need to remind ourselves that there is humanity — complicated, diverse, creative, contradictory humanity — on the other side of the wall, just as there is on our side of it.”

About translated literature

Options on copyrights of Chinese literary titles are increasingly sold overseas every year, but mostly to neighboring Asian countries with similar cultures. Very few Chinese works reach the bookshelves of Europe and the US.

In the past 10 years, translations of Chinese literature have periodically hit the spotlight — particularly when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in 2012 and when Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” sold its first 100,000 copies in English translation in early 2015.

Some major literary journals in Europe and the US are giving more exposure to Chinese authors. At the same time, Chinese publishers are launching more works in translation.

Acceptance is slow, however, when looking at the number of translated titles reaching American and European readers.

Translators Nicky Harman and Helen Wang have been compiling lists of Chinese books published in English since 2012. Their annual list, which counts only titles that are sold commercially, is published on Paper Republic, an online platform connecting translators, editors, publishers, readers and authors interested in Chinese literature.

The list contained 24 works when the duo started their project in 2012. That number almost doubled in 2015, perhaps thanks to Mo and Liu. The number has remained between 30 and 40 since then.

About the book

“Ah Fang’s Lamp,” by Wang Anyi,
translated by Helen Wang

The narrator often meets fruit seller Ah Fang on her way to her stall, recording details of her life in the neighborhood.

“Snow” by Chen Danyan, translated by Paul Harris

On New Year’s morning, a woman tries to organize a family reunion and finds herself in a domestic fight.

“Bengal Tiger” by Xia Shang, translated by Lee Anderson

A schoolboy decides to end a long-standing feud between his family and another, but things get complicated.

“Woman Dancing Under Stars”
by Teng Xiaolan, translated by
Yu Yan Chen

A younger woman and older woman became close friends, until one day, the elder friend mysteriously disappears.

“The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves

A novelist lives in the attic of a
publishing house, killing the facets of himself in the course of writing, then finding them turn up as real corpses of co-workers.

“The Story of Ah-Ming” by Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald

Ah-Ming, who is disdained by her neighbors and neglected by her son, collects neighborhood recyclables to make extra money for her son and family.

“The Lost” by Fu Yuehui, translated by Carson Ramsdell

A young editor gets a phone call from an unknown woman who has lost her mobile phone. Preoccupied by the call, he loses his own mobile in a cab and rediscovers his connection with the world.

“Transparency” by Xiao Bai, translated by Katherine Tse

A private investigator is hired to follow a philandering husband through the vibrant streets of Shanghai.

“Suzhou River” by Cai Jun, translated by Frances Nichol

A man takes refuge in his bathtub, only to find himself, moments later, floating through the surreal streets of Shanghai.

“State of Trance” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg

One man’s journey to return a library book when the world is collapsing around him and artificial intelligence is taking over.


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