The following is my translation of “Crossing Half of China to Be With You” by Yu Xiuhua (余秀华). Yu Xiuhua (b. 1976) is a Chinese poet based in Hengdian, a small village in the Hubei province. Her ideas and experiences regarding love, disillusionment, rural isolation, societal injustice, and disability are documented in her extensive works of raw and poignant poetry, as well as the documentary Still Tomorrow (2016).
“Crossing Half of China to Be With You,” which went viral on WeChat in 2014, has already been translated by many. My slightly euphemistic rendition, which I offer below, is but one personal interpretation and offering. It is not officially authorized by the poet.
Crossing Half of China to Be With You
Actually, giving it or taking, it’s about the same, just
the force of two bodies colliding, just the force of a flower blooming
just this flower’s virtual spring that we again confuse for life
Across China, everything is happening: volcanos erupt, rivers run dry
political prisoners and refugees are ignored
deer and cranes are held at gunpoint along the way
I’m crossing a sea of bullets to be with you
I’m compressing countless nights into one dawn to be with you
I’m running countless I’s into one me to be with you
Of course I’ll let a few butterflies lead me astray
Let some admiration turn into spring
Mistake a soundstage for home
are all the reasons why I absolutely must be with you.
“Jean Baudrillard believed reality doesn’t exist, there are only pictures,” claims Emily, the protagonist of the play Today is My Birthdayby Susan Soon He Stanton. The line takes on a special resonance in Theater Mu’s web-based production, which was directed by Lily Tung Crystal and streamed live from February 6 to 14. In this play, all of Emily’s interactions are mediated through phone calls, FaceTimes, radio shows, and more — resulting in a complex narrative that never includes anyone speaking with her face-to-face.
As “Minnesota’s only pan-Asian performing arts organization,” Theater Mu has long been dedicated to telling stories of the Asian diaspora, and Today is My Birthday is in line with that mission. While the play does not explicitly reckon with questions of race, it does bring up certain Asian American dog whistles — ideological tensions between collectivism and individualism, diaspora and homeland, professional creation and domestic procreation. With these narratives delivered through a predominantly Asian cast, set between the cosmopolitan islands of O’ahu and Manhattan, the play is decidedly grounded in the legacy of Asian American art.
Content mirrors form in Today is My Birthday as the audience peers through the slippery lens of technological mediation to discover that Emily’s life is full of missed connections. The play opens with Emily (Katie Bradley) getting dolled up to go out for lunch, only to have her plans canceled just as she’s walking out of the door. She then calls her mother (Emily Kuroda), who chastises Emily for slow life progress, in her career as well as love (“Thirty is NOT the new twenty!”). This pattern prevails throughout the play as Emily faces flaky friends, thwarted professional opportunities, and acerbic criticisms from those close to her, while a growing queue of dropped calls becomes an emblem of certain issues Emily can’t seem to address.
The dubious relationships symbolically converge in the union of “Iris” and “Kyoni,” the respective shock jock radio personalities of Emily and a mysterious, honey-voiced man. Emily stumbles into this gig as a favor for Kurt, a no-nonsense theatre director (Eric Sharp) — he desperately needs an actor to play out a fictional meet-cute over the radio, she has nothing better to do. Thus begins the narrative heart of the play, a courtship between Emily and her mysterious counterpart. The crux of the matter is, of course, that the man Emily is pursuing is known to her only as a voice on the radio, playing a character that is engineered to entice listeners, in a contrived, bizarro situation. The relationship is, as Baudrillard would say, simulacra — mediated to the point that it has no relationship to reality.
A particularly intriguing B-plot is that of Halima (China Brickey), a friend from Emily’s grad school days and her remaining lifeline to New York. Halima is deep in a melodrama with psychoanalytic roots, grappling with a sleepwalking child, a diary-snooping husband, and dreams of eye-gouging. Her story plays out in periodic installments throughout the production, mostly through ominous voice messages while Emily is absent, wrapped up in her own dramas. Brickey’s virtuosic performance can pivot from the mundane to the horrific on a dime, and she consistently thrills.
The production’s main shortcoming is that of aesthetics. In order to accommodate scene transitions every few minutes, the screen dissolves into time-lapse footage, often of O’ahu, scored by percussive feel-good bops: a choice that feels more apropos of a travel infomercial than an inventive work of theatre, which it is. The in-scene video effects orchestrated by Leanna Keyes of Transcend Streaming is surely impressive, but at times fall into an uncanny valley of realism — while the grainy security camera footage and audio visualizations are great optic touches, crisply-rendered floating heads in green screen cars read as a bit disturbing, at least to this reviewer. All being said, live streamed performance is a challenging domain and it is commendable that Theater Mu is willing to take it on.
Although Today is My Birthday first premiered in 2017, it is obviously fitting for today’s environment — “Stanton must have been prescient,” writes director Lily Tung Crystal in the production’s PDF playbill. The logistics of a story told through phone calls and video chats work all too well for this era of distanced performance, and the mediated interactions are familiar to a hyper-online, contact-starved audience of early 2021. Emily’s situation, as a journalist struggling to find work in a provincial hometown, parallels many who have relocated and faced layoffs due to the pandemic.
The play balances its darkness with sharply funny moments, encompassing highbrow allusions (“Girl, you’re Bell Jar-ing” quips Landon (Jomar Tagatac)), self-referential art world humor (“You sound like a grant application… it’s sexy as hell”), and psychosexual quirks (a foot fetish pops up where you least expect it). Most performers play multiple characters throughout, which makes for a few potentially confusing moments for the audience but overall flexes the cast members’ broad ranges, rompish spirits, and great staminas.
In all, Today is My Birthday makes for an engrossing evening of performance that does not quite distract from the mundane horrors of contemporary reality, but rather faces them head on. It paints an unflinching portrait of a life lived with too much pride, too many secrets, and not enough tenderness — a tale old as time, for sure, but nonetheless poignant in an age of increasing technological mediation. In the end, the play’s message is bluntly sincere: life may be difficult, but it is made bearable through connecting to one’s community.
That great march That elaborate machine Halt Those who receive gunpowder from their dreams also get salt in their wounds and the voice of the gods The rest is just farewells Snowy farewells Bright in the night sky
Both poems by Bei Dao (b. 1949) translations by me (Janine!)
At first it was exciting to read a book that mirrored my thoughts and observations of contemporary society’s horrors, but then it was boring to read a book that mirrored my thoughts and observations of contemporary society’s horrors. Extra stars because I’m nostalgic for New York and Berlin.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel took me on an incredible journey through Alexander Chee’s life, dotted with rose gardens, cater-waiter gigs, AIDS activism, pedagogy, and more. As the book shifts from Bildungsroman to Künstlerroman, its subject (Chee) likewise grows from a Wunderkind to the mature author and teacher he is today– Chee first recognizes his own unique beauty and talent (he is a Leo), harnesses it, then learns to foster similar qualities in others. I appreciated a certain sense of cyclicality: while in the beginning of the book Chee occasionally recounts his experiences as an ingénue courting older men, by the end he details his romantic relationship with a former student. And of course, his lifelong investigation of power dynamics, whether it be between mentor and mentee, master and servant, editor and author, queer and straight, native and foreign, and more, prevails throughout.
A few favorites! I first became acquainted with Chee’s writing through his essay “Girl,” which I initially found in Guernica Mag during a writing workshop my freshman year of college– it was the first piece of literature I’ve ever read that mirrored my own experience navigating the public road as a mixed-race femme and inspired me to write my own memoir on the subject, to the delight of my instructor (who was, for better or worse, the first of many white women in my life to insist I write about my “cultural experiences” at any cost). It was moving to revisit this essay, six (!) years later.
“My Parade” accomplishes the acrobatic feat of following Chee’s relationship to creative writing MFAs as he flips between skepticism, to cynicism, to aspiration, to participation, to championship. This was intriguing and cathartic to read, as someone currently in the process of applying to graduate school (a.k.a. in the aspirational stage). (bonus note for fellow dramaturgs: the element of katharsis, as it features in Aristotle’s Poetics, comes up in the later essay “The Autobiography of My Novel”)
I used to have my own apartment, until COVID-19 convinced me to drive up the California coast to hunker down with my parents. Now I live vicariously through other people’s accounts of their independent-living 20s, one of my favorites being “The Rosary.” Reader, I have never wanted to tend a garden more than while reading how Chee fed a vile-smelling seaweed tea to own bed of roses in a Brooklyn backyard, or how he defended them against malicious pests via nail polish. In these “unprecedented times”, many have turned to the domestic arts– my activity of choice has been daydreaming about the day I have my own garden plot all to myself (yes, I know, daydreaming about a domestic art does not equal actually doing it… humor me) so that I can foster my own little biome. I’m forever thankful for Alexander Chee for documenting his experience creating his own instance of beauty, tucked away in his corner of Brooklyn.
Ocean Vuong said it best in his blurb: “This book makes me feel possible.” My background differs greatly from Chee’s, yet I feel a certain kinship in how we contend with our hyphenate Asian identities, insecurities, and traumas. In reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel I experienced many flashes of recognition usually reserved for Sophocles, Shakespeare, or the Bible– except instead of identifying with the so-called universal experiences of the classics, I was sensing something specific and intimate. Sometimes I feel impossible, contradictory, my identities and aspirations chasing each other in circles while the future closes in on me. But indeed, through Alexander Chee’s writing, I see that I am, in fact, possible, and there is a way forward. Five stars for Alexander! View all my reviews
Madame Bovary captured my heart and mind as I followed the titular Emma Bovary navigate the pitfalls of her bourgeois aspirations, wrestling with psychosexual forces as well as that of the marketplace. Displaying signs of emotional instability from youth (BPD, I thought? Indeed, Jules de Gaultier coined the “Madame Bovary syndrome” to describe how Emma’s psychology manifests in real life individuals in his 1892 essay “Le Bovarysme, la psychologie dans l’œuvre de Flaubert” (which I confess I have not yet read)) as well as a normal desire to live beyond her provincial means, Emma was an easy character for me to sympathize with, personally. I would not condone or even excuse her cheating or lies, but I understand the forces that brought her to such behavior.
It is not a crime to have an addictive personality, difficult emotions, romantic ideations, or to be a lover of fine merchandise and the arts– the issue lies in Emma’s status as a woman in the provinces of the early-mid 1800s France (the book is estimated to take place between 1827 and and 1846, an era marked by the rule of Louis Philippe I and a newly bourgeoning middle class) which compromises her access to, and in turn glorifies, certain tools of self-actualization. She possesses what is, in my opinion, a healthy instinct towards a stimulating and well-examined life, a desire that is enhanced by her milieu‘s literary and commercial preoccupations (see the aforementioned economic shifts on the cusp of an industrializing France) but thwarted by the fact that she is a woman. Unable to pursue (or even conceive of?) intellectual productivity for herself, Emma’s ambitions are displaced onto the men with whom she forms attachments. When these intense relationships, notably with her ineffectual husband Charles among others, unavoidably disappoint, her distress manifests as material obsession and she is thus doubly ruined, financially and emotionally. Emma’s impulses are sublimated into addictive patterns of attachment and consumption, leading to her ruin.
I had a major soft spot for the character of Homais, a local pharmacist who, in my mind, acted simultaneously as Emma’s counterpart and her foil. To me, Homais represented what Emma could have been were she born a man– he is similarly ambitious, pursuing respect and notoriety exactly as Emma wished her husband (and I’d say herself) would, enjoys and advocates for the arts, and runs a tight household. He has some of my favorite speeches in the book:
I worship God, I assure you! I believe in a Supreme Being, a Creator. Whoever he is– and what difference does it make?–he put us here on earth to fulfill our duties as citizens and parents. But I don’t have to go into church and kiss silver platters and hand over my money to fatten up a lot of rascals that eat better than you and I! To him, one can do a full honor in a forest, a field– or merely by gazing up at the ethereal vault, like the ancients. My God is the God of Socrates, of Franklin, of Voltaire, of Béranger! My credo is the credo of Rousseau! I adhere to the immortal principles of ’89! I have no use for the kind of God who goes walking in his garden with a stick, sends his friends to live in the bellies of whales, gives up the ghost with a groan and then comes back to life three days later! Those things aren’t only absurd in themselves, Madame– they’re completely opposed to all physical laws.
Homais also makes for very fruitful comedic relief– many characters go out of their way to avoid his hilariously pompous speeches or simply tell him to shut it, and as you might imagine from this passage he has some pithy and entertaining tête-à-têtes with the local priest.
One of the great tragedies of the novel is that Emma never appreciated poor Charles, her husband. I understand his failures– he is portrayed as utterly unromantic, second-rate, and incredibly dull– but Charles did have pure intentions to love her, defend her, and provide for her. He is clearly marked for failure from the start, but I found him to be a totally sympathetic character and was touched by his dedication and encouragement towards Emma.
I would advise any reader to pay special attention and sympathy to those beloved characters of mine (Homais and Charles), as well as look out for other interesting themes such as the meta-narrative of realism vs romanticism, the hegemony and fracturing of nuclear families, and tensions between the urban/suburban/pastoral/domestic sublimes.
Madame Bovary is a bit of a cautionary tale. After reading it, I feel much more aware of how certain materialistic media and ideologies can affect my life for the worse– taking aspirational Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards with a grain of salt. I am thankful that I have the privileges of being able to write, to travel, to make and consume art… and as for the privileges I lack, I try to process that distress in a healthy and proactive way rather than fall into Gaultier’s Bovarysme. I feel very close to Emma now, and wish that she could be alive today to enjoy the readily accessible archives of art and literature afforded by the Information Age, and might have found solace in its interconnectivity. I think she would have liked Goodreads, don’t you?
A short film in collaboration with Noah Shearer. Produced by Allhands… in association with First Squeeze/Last Squeeze Productions. Premiered in December 2020 at the inaugural Taking Suggestions… Film Festival.
“It took all my strength to love you, And all my strength to let you go.
Melting, sticky, stuck between my teeth The pearl that won’t get smooth The winterberry clinging to the branch
The summer breeze is going by, and I’m sending you away with it.”
Accepted for publication in the the Fall 2021 issue of Westwind!
Every time I merged on the 110 I was convinced it would be my last. After trawling around the sleepy side streets of Northeast Los Angeles, I’d pause at a stop sign placed unfortunately at the freeway entrance, squint hopelessly into my rearview mirror, take a deep breath, and floor it. I’d pray that no one would come hurtling around the curve behind me while my trusty Honda Civic leapt toward 55 mph. And before I got too comfortable, I’d grit my teeth and scoot over a lane– on this winding stretch of the 110, I always suspected I’d ram into someone orchestrating their own hesitant merge around the corner.
Architectural critic Reyner Banham described the LA freeway system as “a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life.” The freeway was truly the essence of Los Angeles to me, and I would let myself settle into it every day when I merged onto the 110. Palm-studded hills would hover around me as I whipped through the bends of the road, and the high rises downtown would loom hazily ahead. I’d feel as if I could die at any minute, yet be strangely lulled by the rhythm of the road. Driving on an L.A. freeway was, again as Banham put it, “a special way of being alive”– it required a certain heightened awareness and reliance on one’s own God-given reflexes to avoid a nasty crash. Is there any other activity that is so mundane, yet so deadly?