Xue Yiwei. Translator Darryl Sterk

September 2016

The first book in English by acclaimed Chinese-Canadian writer Xue Yiwei, Shenzheners is inspired by the young city of Shenzhen, a market town north of Hong Kong that became a Special Economic Zone in 1980 as an experiment in introducing capitalism to Communist China. A city in which everyone is a newcomer, Shenzhen has grown astronomically to become a major metropolitan centre. Hailed as a Chinese Dubliners, the original collection was named one of the Most Influential Chinese Books of the Year in 2013, with most of the stories appearing in Best Chinese Stories. 

WINNER of the 2017 Blue Metropolis / Montreal Arts Council Prize for Literary Diversity.

XUE YIWEI is an award-winning Chinese writer born in Chenzhou and raised in Changsha, in Hunan province. He has a B.Sc. in Computer Science from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an M.A. in English Literature from Université de Montréal, and a Ph. D. in Linguistics from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. He has taught Chinese literature at Shenzhen University and is the author of sixteen books, including four novels—Desertion (1989, reissued 2012), Dr. Bethune’s Children (2011), Farewells from a Shadow (2013), and Empty Nest (2014)—and five collections of stories. He lives in Montreal.

DARRYL STERK is a Canadian literary translator specializing in fiction in Mandarin Chinese, including Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man With the Compound Eyes (Harvill Secker; Vintage Pantheon) and Horace Ho’s The Tree Fort Over Carnation Lane (Balestier). He has translated the forthcoming Home Sickness (LLP, 2020) by Chih-Ying Lay. He teaches translation in the Graduate Program of Translation and Interpretation at National Taiwan University and lives in Taipei.

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What they say
A maverick of contemporary Chinese literature

"Xue Yiwei is a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature. He stays alone and aloof, far away from restive crowds back in his homeland. For him, to write is to make a pilgrimage to his masters: Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Proust. He writes with deep devotion and intense concentration. His fiction often meditates on life, history, violence, exile. This selection of stories can open a window into the fiction world he has constructed. As an admirer of his, I salute his courage, his stamina, and his love of solitude."

Ha Jin, National Book Award winning novelist

The Poetry of Awkwardness
Bethany Or, Montreal Review of Books

Each of the nine characters has a connection to “the youngest city in China,” Shenzhen, known as a wheeling, dealing, manufacturing town, a place one goes to seek fortune, or perhaps a factory job. But Xue’s characters are not only going there to make money. They flee there, escaping their situations at home, or rest there, trying to make a stable life for themselves, like the big sister in “The Two Sisters,” seeking a reliable man to marry and raise a child with. This casts Shenzhen in a light not often depicted – as a place of refuge, and of human discovery.

With this setting, a city of migrants from all over China, Shenzheners is rich in the metaphors common to migrant living. Xue’s curious eye observes the many layers of belonging that characterize migrant identity, and lends itself to depictions of the complex, felt experience of a range of identities – Chinese, Cantonese, Canadian, but also rural and urban, perhaps the strongest identity rift within China.

His characters, having multiple identities, may spring from Xue’s own experience as a Hunan-raised, Guangdong-educated transplant to Montreal. He deftly moves between the worlds described in Shenzheners – of women, men, children, of different social classes and Chinese regions. One gets the sense that Xue himself, belonging to many places, may feel an appartenance to several places at once, and in equal measure, no place at all – a reality for many migrants.
Read more.
Summer 2016, Montreal Review of Books

Trapped in Shenzhen
Judy Fong Bates, Literary Review of Canada

By being so spare, these nine stories in fact have a strange folktale quality. The characters have no names, are only known as the teacher, the pedlar, big sister, mother, father, by a pronoun. And with the exception Father and Mother in “The Father,” the characters do not even have the benefit of a capital letter in their monikers. The stories have little sense of place, and it is only when reading the last one and its descriptions of traffic and crowding did I feel that I was in a bustling modern city. Instead, we are told about a park, a river, a row of trees, a room, but not much more. By being minimal in his descriptions and leaving places and especially characters without names, Xue Yiwei creates anonymity and reinforces the theme of alienation. Indeed, these stories are not folktales: they are not allegories or parables; the characters are not archetypes whose actions might provide a moral guide to living. The reader does not close the book with a sigh of satisfaction. The writer goes straight to the bone; everything else is superfluous.

This is not an easy collection and Xue Yiwei’s pessimistic vision of life is often hard to swallow. What he does, though, is shine an unflinching light on the lives of people in contemporary China, and, in doing so, questions the price that China is paying for this “modern” society—a question that China (and perhaps all of us) ignores at its peril. 
Read more.
November 2016, Literary Review of Canada  

"quiet but intimate"
Jade Colbert, Globe and Mail

In the opening story to Xue Yiwei's collection, a chance encounter on a train to Montreal leads a Canadian woman to leave her life near Trois-Rivières for Shenzhen. For both character and reader, Montreal becomes a portal to "China's youngest city," but the book's dedication brings another city into the mix: "To the Irishman who inspires me" – Shenzheners is Xue's Dubliners. It is also Xue's first book translated into English, though he's an acclaimed author in China and has lived in Canada since 2002. Shenzhen, which lies just north of Hong Kong, was a market town until 1980, when China designated it a Special Economic Zone. Today, metro Shenzhen's population breaks 18 million. Perhaps in response to this astronomical growth, the people who variegate Xue's stories share a sense of psychological solitude (alternative reading: emotional isolation) cut through with moments of intense personal connection. A quiet but intimate interlocution with the city.

September 2016, The Globe and Mail

Montreal's literary secret is finally out
Ian McGillis, Montreal Gazette

In a world where we like to think everything is interconnected, the case of Xue Yiwei is remarkable.

One of the most acclaimed and widely read of Chinese writers has, it turns out, been hiding in plain sight in Montreal for almost 15 years, his work untranslated worldwide even while his reputation in his homeland continues to grow. Wide-ranging and prolific — he has even recently been rewriting a considerable portion of his already-published ouevre — Yiwei, 52, finally gets his introduction to English readers with the appearance of Shenzheners (Linda Leith Publishing, 176 pages, $18.95). The loosely interconnected set of nine stories follows the private and public lives of people from every social level of China’s newest metropolis. The title’s echo of another set of city stories, Joyce’s Dubliners, is earned: via Darryl Sterk’s smooth translation we get a look into Shenzhen’s soul through deceptively low-key tales of small-scale epiphanies. Read more.

August 2016, Montreal Gazette

Xue Yiwei on why writing is innately political
Erin Stropes, CBC

Xue Yiwei answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Larry Tremblay asks, "Do you believe that knowing too much about a character can damage his or her creation?
Yes, I do, though it depends on how much is too much.

2. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What is your favourite font — or typeface? Why?"
Times New Roman in English. I find it solid and serious.

3. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "What do you do when some academic or reviewer points out some amazingly interesting and clever metaphor or an implied meaning in your book that you had no idea existed?"
I feel encouraged and would like to share these new discoveries with more readers. I maintain interpretation extends the life of a book.

4. Beth Powning asks, "Describe the journey that you take after you have finished writing a book and are wondering what you are going to write next."
The language I write is Chinese. Between the book just finished and the book yet to come, I prefer immersing myself in English, reading and listening.

5. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think it's harder to write funny stories than serious ones?"
Yes, I do. My stories are always considered serious. But I bear a strong intention to write something profoundly funny before I would no longer be able to write.

6. Sigal Samuel asks, "Do you feel like being a writer absolves you from worldly responsibilities like attending political protests? Do you believe that when you're writing, that is you doing your political work, so you don't have to do the out-on- the-street kind? Or do you do both?"
Yes, I do think writing is the politics of a writer and the elaborately written words are the most delicate and the most efficient weapon for a writer.

7. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"
To ask the strangest questions like: Am I the right person to write this book? Or: Why should I write this book?

8. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"
Disagree. Writer's block really matters. It will falsify all the excuses.
March 2017, CBC Books

Q&A: Xue Yiwei on Shenzheners, Short Stories and the "real" China
Amy Hawkins, That's Beijing

Xue Yiwei is a writer between continents. Described as “a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature” by Ha Jin, winner of the National Book Award, most of Xue’s work has been written from his adopted home of Montreal, Canada. Originally from China’s Hunan province, Xue’s recently translated collection of short stories, Shenzheners, was inspired by (and dedicated to) James Joyce’s Dubliners.

The characters in the book hardly mention Shenzhen at all. What makes them Shenzheners?
All the characters have prototypes – people who I’ve really met. I feel their feelings, and I feel their sense in the city, the youngest city in China. For example, ‘The Peddler.’ I first met the Peddler 33 years ago in another city. But I saw him again in Shenzhen. He may not have been exactly the same person, but it was seeing him in Shenzhen that really helped me to understand him. Read more.
January 2017, That's Beijing Magazine

Footsteps in Edmonton and Shenzhen
Stephanie L. Lu, Canadian Literature

The first story focuses on a prairie-raised woman from eastern Ontario whose chance encounter with a Chinese man on a train eventually leads her to seek out a new career in Shenzhen, China. The following stories, all set in Shenzhen, weave through a vast kaleidoscope of characters, including a former soldier who, in his old age, battles energetically with schoolboys to protect his wares; a woman confident in her choice of a “reliable” husband who later becomes the victim of vicious gossip; and a young piano prodigy who keeps a painful secret... [He] turns out to be a deeply wounded child. In the end, what really matters is to be surrounded by family and neighbours who understand and cherish you. Read more. 
January 2016, Canadian Literature 

"Quiet portraits of melancholy and failure"
Steven Beattie, Quill & Quire

The first work of fiction by Chinese writer Xue Yiwei to appear in English, Shenzheners is dedicated to “the Irishman who inspires me.” Given that the book comprises a suite of stories focusing on denizens of the titular metropolis, it is reasonable to presume that the Irishman in question is Joyce. Indeed, in its original Mandarin, the book was referred to in some circles as a Chinese answer to Dubliners.

But the spirit of another Irishman hovers over the entire collection. In its austere prose, existential rumination, and pervasive themes of loneliness and isolation, Xue’s book most vividly resembles Beckett. And it is Beckett, not Joyce, who is alluded to explicitly in “The Dramatist”: “I’m waiting for Godot,” the eponymous playwright responds when questioned in a community garden by the story’s first-person narrator. A line from one of the dramatist’s own plays – “Silence is revolt against absurdity” – has a distinctly Beckettian air, as does the moment at the close of the garden scene, which recalls the end of Waiting for Godot: “The dramatist turned to go without taking his leave of me.”
Read more.
September 2016, Quill & Quire


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