Sunday, 7 October 2018

White Snake And Other Stories by Geling Yan

White Snake And Other Stories by Geling Yan
First published in America by Aunt Lute Books in September 1999. Translated into English by Lawrence A Walker.

My 1990s read for my 2018-19 Decade Challenge, one of my WorldReads from China, and featured in Cover Characteristics: Women In White

How I got this book:
Bought at a Hope Association book sale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this collection of five short stories and one novella, set mostly in China during and after the Cultural Revolution, Geling Yan presents us with the unforgettable characters who have all, in one way or another, left home. Taking as her territory the disorienting space between home and away, Yan charts the unexpected and illuminating transformation of her characters hearts and minds as they find themselves thrust into unlikely intimacy with strangers.

"[Yan's] stories are very sensuous. One experiences and becomes immersed in her works instead of simply reading them. In my opinion, Geling Yan is the most exquisite fiction writer in the Chinese language today" - Joan Chen. Includes Celestial Bath, the basis for Joan Chen's film Xiu Xiu, The Sent Down Girl. Geling was awarded a Golden Horse in 1998 for her screen adaption.

The stories in this collection are White Snake, Celestial Bath, The Death Of The Lieutenant, Red Apples, Nothing More Than Male And Female, and Siao Yu. Each one is followed by a short glossary which explains things like the symbolism of the characters' names and cultural references. Geling Yan's writing style is different to other books I have read recently so it took most of the first story, White Snake, for me to become accustomed to the pace and turns of phrase. White Snake turned out to be my least favourite of the six tales and I am not sure whether this was due to it being that initial story or if its switching between narration and reports made it less accessible for me.

I found I could most strongly appreciate the stories where the leading characters illustrate culture clashes. Red Apples, set in Tibet, is a beautifully understated story where what could be an intense love affair between a dishonoured Chinese soldier and a blind Tibetan woman is viewed through the eyes of a young visiting dancer. Siao Yu, set in Australia, tells of a young woman who is persuaded into a marriage of convenience with an elderly Australian man in order to make immigration easier for herself and her Chinese boyfriend. When that boyfriend is then unable to manage his jealousy and the Australian man's girlfriend also objects, Siao Yu finds herself stuck in a delicate situation. My favourite is probably The Death Of The Lieutenant in which the Lieutenant of the title explains how he came to fall from being a hero to being imprisoned for murder.

Yan has a deceptively open and pragmatic style which I think comes across well in Lawrence Walker's translation. Her characters face difficult dilemmas and, for various reasons, are isolated, far from their homes and families. There is deep emotion in each story, but repressed and shown in a restrained way. I learned that public displays of feeling is not The Done Thing in China and that is another of Yan's themes. I discovered this collection purely by chance, but am glad to have done so as I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy these unusual and enjoyable stories.

Etsy Find!
by Kim Chambers Art in
Georgia, USA

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  1. Sometimes I re-read the first short story in a collection in cases like this because of the very reason you mention. If you are reading something written in a voice you aren't used to, it can take a minute to get acclimated.

    1. So true. The first story here switches between two styles as well, just to keep readers on their toes!

  2. Sounds like most of the stories were good.

    1. Yes, once I got accustomed to the style, I enjoyed the read :-)