I was born and raised in Beijing, China. In 2006, I immigrated to Canada. The following year, during a trip to California, I bought a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2007. I assumed that every single story in that anthology was written by an American author. I held that assumption until I began reading the story “Dimensions” by an author named Alice Munro. Somewhere in the story, there was a character carrying a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee in her hand. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself in alarm, “is she Canadian?”
I paused my reading and spent a couple of minutes musing upon this discovery in spite of my burning curiosity for the character’s fate. Tim Horton’s isn’t an international name like McDonald’s or Starbucks. I would have never heard of it had I never been to Canada. What did this discovery mean to me? I don’t know. I just felt a connection with Alice Munro, as if I could understand her better than Americans that hadn’t tasted Tim Horton’s coffee.
I’ve read more stories by Alice Munro ever since. In 2014, I was commissioned to translate her 12th book, The View from Castle Rock, by Yilin Publishing House. (“Yilin” means “the forest of translations” in Chinese, and Yilin Publishing House is China’s most prolific publisher of translation works.) It took me a whole year to accomplish the job, and throughout the time I experienced countless joyful moments when I was able to make connections between Munro’s work and my own experiences. For instance, in the title story, Alice Munro re-constructs the journey of James Laidlaw, the first ancestor on her father’s side to immigrate to North America. Born and raised in Ettrick Valley, a place described by Statistical Account of Scotland in 1799 as “having no advantage,” James Laidlaw is a dreamer who is obsessed with the notion of moving to America to own better land. By the time he’s sixty, he raises enough fare for him and his younger children to embark for the new world. Barely onboard the vessel, he discovers, much to his astonishment and dismay, that there are Highlanders and Irish among the passengers. Shouldn’t there only be decent Scotsmen on deck? He couldn’t help lamenting, “An evil lot, an evil lot. Oh, that ever we left our native land!”
When he immigrated, he met not only foreigners, but also different kinds of his own people whom he would have never met otherwise. And the second part constitutes an even bigger challenge than the first one. That’s my own experience, too.
Upon my arrival in Canada in 2006, I made a resolution to write in English. The difficulty seemed insurmountable, but I convinced myself that it was doable. My argument went like this: suppose I was born in 2006 and began learning English the way a baby would. My language abilities will certainly get better as I grow older. The only decisive factor is how long I’ll live.
By this year, 2016, I am into the tenth year of my self-imposed mission. I’ve learned that learning a new language as a grown-up is much more difficult than as a newborn because an adult could always retreat to the safe haven of their mother tongue.
Writers are minorities. Ethnic writers are a minority within a minority. It is amazing that I have met a number of like-minded writers along the way. When I told them that I wanted to collect stories written in English by ethnic Chinese authors, they generously submitted their works to me. While reading the manuscripts, I once again experienced joyful moments of recognition, association, retrospection, and revelation. I saw myself through every piece of their works.
Rui Wang’s “A Hero of Our Times” is a heart wrenching tragedy about how a young man tries to make sense of his life in a senseless time in China’s history. Yili’s “The Golden Venture”, set against the background of the Golden Venture incident in 1993, allows us a glimpse of the fate and mindset of illegal immigrants. Christina Yao’s “Vacances à Paris” and Xiaowen Zeng’s “Return to Gander” are both about how love is elsewhere as the titles suggest. Lily Chu’s “The Bug” is not a typical immigrant story. In fact, it has nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality. It’s an intriguing mystery.
I also received three stories which were first written in Chinese and then translated into English. At first, I thought they didn’t fit into this anthology because they weren’t originally written in English. At that point I had already written about a thousand words for the foreword, and a part of it went like this: “All the contributing writers in this anthology had spent their formative years writing in Chinese. They try to make sense of the new world, as well as the old world, by writing directly in their adopted language.” Are those words to be forfeited completely? Well, I had to change my criteria if it excluded good writings. At least I can keep the words, “spent their formative years writing in Chinese,” can’t I?
Ma Lan’s “Flowers Bloom, Flowers Fall” tells stories that happened in China. The way the author juxtaposes different times coincides with my sense of scrambled time when I first landed in North America. Lily Liu’s “The Stranger” has two layers of narrative. The outer one embodies the main themes of this anthology, and it ultimately inspired the title of this book. The core layer of the narrative is set in China’s Cultural Revolution, which links itself with Rui Wang’s story and gave me the idea to group stories with similar themes into mini-anthologies. Jieru Zhou’s “The House in Avenel”, a short and sweet piece that exuberates the nomadic spirit, instantly reminded me of “The Bug” and “The Golden Venture”, which led me to group them together.
The last one that came onto my desk was Allan Cho’s “Counting Down the Minutes”. It proved to be the biggest challenge to my criteria. Allan Cho was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, and English is his first language. If I included his piece, I had to completely scrap the part—“spent their formative years writing in Chinese . . . ” Once again, I pushed the envelope. What is literature for, anyway? It’s for breaking existing boundaries instead of building more.
Everyone struggles with their identity. Writers struggle for an audience as well as for their identity. Minority writers’ struggle may be doubled. But as long as we keep going, we may be closer to our goals than we think.