John Ruskin attached a tower to his bedroom on his mountainside estate, Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water in Cumbria. Unlike Sackville-West’s, his tower room windowed on all sides, almost a capsule, offered a corner in which to escape from recurring nightmares or to watch the stars.
Xue Yiwei's Shenzheners, by Linda Leith19 August 2016
Author Xue Yiwei
What appeals most to me about Shenzheners is its compassionate view of its people and the access it provides its readers into their hearts and minds. These are people identified simply—they’re referred to not by name but as the country girl, for example, the physics teacher, the big sister and the little sister. This distances us from them just a little--just enough for us to be able see them whole—while allowing us to feel for them in their trials, their loves, and their sorrows, as we feel for the individuals we know best in our own daily lives.
This mix of distance and proximity is what makes Shenzheners a great book, a view from afar—especially for those of us who live far from Shenzhen—that’s at the same time intimate and compelling. Darryl Sterk’s English translation is both colloquial and familiar, but also reserved, too, off to one side, where it can provide a wide view of individual lives through gesture, expression, detail, and exactly the right word.
The look of the book is the first sign that this is a work that’s both foreign—foreign to us all, no matter what our nationality—and inviting. How not to love the warm and appealing illustrations by Chinese artist Cai Gao, both on the front cover and inside, at the start of each story. The green and red colour combination in the cover design is not only beautiful but also intriguing, even surprising.
The biggest surprise is the lettering. "Shenzheners" is a long word, which means we would have to use small lettering to fit the whole word across the front cover. Knowing how Yiwei is inspired by James Joyce, I sought inspiration in the covers of various editions of his remarkable collection of stories, Dubliners. One or two of these break the word up into three different lines--DUB, LIN, and ERS--so that’s what our designer Debbie Geltner did with SHEN ZHEN ERS, making the word and the people of Shenzhen unfamiliar even to those who are most familiar with them, allowing us all to see them anew.
And this is why we’re reading Shenzheners, here in Montreal. To learn something about what we think we already know. To discover what we knew all along about people we never gave too much thought to, until now. To see how the small gesture and exactly the right word can help us understand the world we share with the big sister, the little sister, and the peddler. To see anew. And just for the pleasure of it.
© 2016, Linda Leith
LLP Publisher Linda Leith
[Photo: David Boullata]