Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Going to AWP

I'm going to AWP New York today and will be there until Sunday. I intend to post during the conference, provided I have access to the internet. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Cyber Party to Celebrate THE LIAR'S DIARY

"Today, over 300 bloggers, including bestsellers, Emmy winners, movie makers, and publishing houses have come together to talk about THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis." Thanks to Susan Henderson for hosting this party, and to Maryanne for passing the information around! Read more here and here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Contemporary Art at ICA

Yesterday, at the request of a reputed sculptor from Chengdu, China visiting with us, we went to ICA (The Institute for Contemporary Art/Boston). My husband had heard that the building was an amazing piece of architecture, so we were all eager to go.

When we arrived, I was, at first, a bit disappointed, because from the front the building is unremarkable. However on the fourth floor, where the galleries are located, I was utterly attracted by several works.

One was "1st Light, 2005," a projected digital animation by Paul Chan. The moving silhouettes that are projected onto the floor – flying bicycles and other materials, in contrast with falling human figures appearing at intervals – gives an odd yet long-lasting impression. According to the description I read afterward, this work is a post-9/11 parable of politics and religion. The rising material and falling body reversal characterizes our era.

Another piece, a blanket made of pins painted black gives a deceptive soft and downy feeling. I had an impulse to touch it as you would at any soft and warm object. This irony between the thorny actuality and soft appearance fascinated me. I thought about borrowing this approach in my writing. I was so totally absorbed that I forgot to look at the title, artist name, or description of the piece.

The material and appearance contrast (apparently many artists are going in this direction) is also evident in a work by Cornelia Parker. I was surprised to find out that the hanging objects were charcoal. It turns out the piece is titled "Hanging Fire."

Louise Bourgeois' room-size spider is dominating and instantly recalls Kafka (my husband said Men in Black). I would like to know if it was influenced by "The Metamorphosis."

And we found out what was unique about the building's architecture: the back part of the 4th floor hangs in the air, sticking out over the bay waves. Looking out from the window the sight is peculiar.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Taiji Celestial Village

by Maple Xu

Note: Maple is an avid traveler and photographer in China. I savor her travelogues, which are always unusual. Here I'm sharing with you the latest she sent me last week. Any translation error is mine. - Xujun

Yuyuan is a little known village in China's Zhejiang Province. For many hundreds of years, the villagers surnamed "Yu" worked and lived peacefully there. A first glance at the village would reveal no difference from any others around.

One day, by chance, someone flying by in an airplane looked down and saw it. He was so shocked that he broke out into a cold sweat. The eleven hills surrounding the village, together with the Taiji Yin-Yang Fish, constitute the 12 signs of celestial zodiac. Arranged in the classical Eight Diagrams, the village's 28 building blocks correspond to the 28 Celestial Mansions, with seven old wells forming the Big Dipper. The Yu clan's ancestral hall is located in the center of the constellation. A complete Taiji Celestial Diagram on earth!

The news spread, and brought in curious visitors. They found the oldest man in the village, who told a legend.

An ancestor of the Yu clan, Yu Lai, was friend and classmate of Liu Bowen (1311-1375), the great war-strategist from the Yuan Dynasty. Yu Lai had no interest in fame and wealth, and loathed officialdom. He lived all his life in the country, fishing, gardening, composing poems, and teaching children. Liu Bowen deeply respected the lighthearted classmate, and kept close contact with him even after Liu had became one of the highest officials in the emperor's court.

Every time Liu Bowen visited his home, which is not too far from Yuyuan, he always came to see Yu Lai first and stayed for a few days. Liu Bowen was a learned man, conversant from a young age in the art of war, works of Confucian and other ancient Chinese classics, astronomy and geography, Yin-Yang and divination. He was also fond of geological exploration, and had deep attainment in hydraulic engineering.

At the time, Yuyuan constantly suffered either drought or flood. Epidemics occurred frequently; people lived in dire poverty. Liu Bowen rearranged the Yu clan's generational names according to celestial constellations, and designed the Taiji celestial diagram for the village's reconstruction. Under his guidance, the villagers changed the straight stream into a curved one, and used the new stream as the Yin-Yang border in the Taiji diagram. The houses and wells were relocated accordingly. From then on, Yuyuan Village became free of disasters. Now the Yu clan's incense has passed to the 28th generation. Most of the over two thousand residents are surnamed Yu. The village is the largest Yu clan inhabitant in China.

The Yuyuan Village Taiji Diagram measures 320 meters in diameter, and has an area of 120 hectares, or 720 acres. The village preserves over 400 ancient buildings, with refined woodcarving, as well as stone- and brick-carving. In the eyes of the old residents, every tree in the village has a designated location that can't be moved. Any move would break the Feng-Shui, and the person who causes such a break would suffer retribution.

Shortly after the Liberation in 1949, someone attempted to fill a well so he could build a house over it. As soon as he finished filling the well, his house was on fire. Digging to reopen the well put out the fire. Any attempt to refill the well brought the fire back. Several attempts later, he gave up and did not dare to be impetuous any more.

That well is one of the seven stars in the Big Dipper. I found it following the village map faithfully, as if searching for treasure. So many years have gone by; matters are the same, people are different. In the well, clear water still bubbles.

An old lady was washing a bamboo board by the well. She told me an ancestral temple in the village has a beam that unfailingly makes the correct forecast for the weather.

I asked around along the way, and finally found the somewhat beaten old house. The keeper pointed to me the legendary beam, with nine perfectly preserved carps carved on it.

But when I first saw the carps, I counted and counted but could only find eight. "This is what you don't understand," the keeper twisted his lips complacently, "in the old times only the emperor was entitled to the number nine. If nine fish were obviously carved on the beam, wouldn't it risk the suspicion of competing with the emperor's 9-dragon pillar? That's why our smart ancestor honored the taboo and carved the 9th fish in the mouth of the eighth."

After seeing the light, I indeed found a lovely brisk little fish in a big fish's mouth.

It is said that the fish turn crimson for a sunny day, but khaki under an overcast sky. Rainy days, they are brown. That day when I visited, the weather was uncertain: after being cloudy for a while, it drizzled. Then it turned overcast again.

"Is that why the fish show alternating khaki and brown?"

The keeper responded to my question with an unfathomable smile.

(Photo copyrights 2007 Maple Xu)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Beating Death of a Chinese Blogger

I am shaking with anger. Read the shocking news here.

Reading posts on the Chinese internet about the incident, a witness description particularly disturbed me. The mob was a fairly large crowd, and those at the outer rings had to keep jumping up in order to land their fists on Wei Wenhua. Such eagerness for participation in mass violence! This reminds me the Red Guards beating up "class enemies" during the Cultural Revolution. A striking parallel between the two cases is the difficulty in singling out THE culpable, while "the law doesn't rebuke the masses," as a Chinese adage says.

Against my initial suspicions that those city inspectors who took part in the beating might be uneducated street thugs hired for the dirty job, they were actually chosen from a competitive process. In other words, they might otherwise be normal government workers. Then what made them enjoy the beating with such eagerness? Is it the nature of a mass action that gives men the sense of legitimacy in violence?

Merry Speece's Writing

Rusty Barnes, editor of Night Train, called Merry Speece's story "Stone Dog" one of his favorites. When I read the story, it is its peculiar, inimitable language that fascinates me. You'll need an Adobe reader to read "Stone Dog." But don't worry if you do not have one – here is another work by Merry Speece on Poemeleon, where she claims "I don't distinguish much between poetry and prose." Treat yourself with this read.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Letter from MMM Hayes

At some point last year, the renowned literary magazine StoryQuarterly changed hands. However, concerned writers never received words from its new publisher about what happened. As recent as last week, some of my writer friends still thought SQ was under the editorship of its long-time publisher MMM Hayes. Yesterday, MMM Hayes sent a memo to the list of authors she has published, including me (my story, "Goldbach's Conjecture," appeared in SQ 40). With her permission, I'm posting MMM's memo below, and hope it clarifies a few things. Comments and questions are welcome and appreciated. - Xujun


Wishing you all a wonderful and productive new 2008! 2007 welcomed a big transition for StoryQuarterly as it expanded to online publishing within the Narrative Magazine group and I want to take this opportunity to tell you all how much I’ve enjoyed working with and getting to know you.

After eleven years of editing and publishing, I felt ready to move on to some other projects, but wanted StoryQuarterly to continue to grow and thrive. In 2007 I left editing with one of SQ’s stories anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories and another in Best American Essays, always a lot of work, but so worth it, and I wanted a healthy future for SQ. I found the perfect vision, and ability to execute, in Tom Jenks, a long-time friend at Narrative Magazine. The change occurred last May; after I’d turned over the stories I’d chosen from last year’s reading period to the Narrative people to negotiate their own contracts. I was delighted to see StoryQuarterly become a paying market, plus seeing Narrative’s huge online circulation give a giant boost to StoryQuarterly’s already large literary readership. Narrative published SQ’s annual print edition in a beautiful new format—take a peek at The book, titled 13 Lies and 3 Truths is available through print-on-demand, or at All of this means more visibility for my authors, which I find deeply gratifying.

Since May, I’ve personally hunkered down to finish up two novels of my own, and had time to take an inspiring course on Milosz, given by Adam Zagajewski, newly visiting professor at the U of Chicago. But much as I’m enjoying my return to the real world, and sending my own writings up to bat, I must admit that I already miss the personal contact I’ve had with you all over these busy years and I’ll always be grateful for the lifelong friendships I’ve made while mud-wrestling over word choices in your stories. So on to the next, but I’ll always be part of the industry, in a number of ways. Once a book addict, always a book addict, right?

I hope you’ll continue to update me on your own lives with email news, pictures, and copies of new books. Email me, or send stuff to the same old address: 431 Sheridan Road, Kenilworth, IL 60043. I’ll also be at the AWP in New York, staying at the Hilton Hotel from Wednesday, January 30 through Saturday, Feb 1. Catch me there. I’d love a visit. I’ll look for you in the New SQ format and anticipate the surprises that lie in store for us as we meld our style into Narrative’s. I do believe that the bright future of literary publishing will be online, already is, and that StoryQuarterly’s accepting Narrative’s stewardship seized a good opportunity for this historic publication to continue to go forward and grow under Tom Jenk’s strong leadership. Already my choice has been hugely rewarded as I’ve seen two new online SQ publications and the beautiful 13 Lies and 3 truths, the annual SQ imprint.

I hope you share my enthusiasm for the changes in the industry. I got a new Sony ereader for Christmas and the new Kindle will have audio too. I’m sure technology will convert even more readers from the online generation, a phenomenon in the making, in my view. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

MMM Hayes

Rose Fox: "How I Do PW Stuff"

Rose Fox is a writer and editor at Publishers Weekly. She recently posted on her blog Rose Fox Reads a series of articles about how book reviews work at PW. Interesting and informative stuff for writers. Here are the links (thanks to Donna Storey for directing me to this):

How I do PW stuff, part 1: "When will my book be reviewed?"
How I do PW stuff, part 2: all imprints great and small
How I do PW stuff, part 3: which books get reviewed
How I do PW stuff, part 4: starred reviews
How I do PW stuff, part 5: editing reviews

Sunday, January 13, 2008

T-Shirts and Mayan Ruins

High Priest's Grave

Seven is everywhere in the ruins at Chichen Itza, our Mayan tour guide Santos Yah tells us. Now toward the end of our tour, we stand in front of the High Priest's Grave. Santos counts the step-pyramid temple's stone walls, "One, two, three, four, five…seven walls. When it was explored, 1993, 1997, that's how we know, it's a tomb. In the tomb was found skeletons. Do you have an idea how many skeletons?"

People murmur. An American man's confident voice raises above others: "Seven thousand!"

"Seven," says Santos.

A Mexican T-Shirt

Bob went running early in the morning outside of our Cancun hotel, as he did daily at home. A Mexican man in his thirties ran ahead of Bob. The man wore a T-shirt with text around an airplane, like this:

Bob, who learned enough Spanish in his youth when he bicycled through Latin America jungles, described the T-shirt to me afterward and said the text translated as "Authorized Terrorist." Then he commented, "People apparently are more relaxed about these things in Mexico."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Could the NY Times Have Done a Better Job?

This week, the New York Times managed to surprise me with a report titled "1977 Exam Opened Escape Route Into China’s Elite." It was curious that the Times would take up a subject whose significance is difficult for Americans to comprehend, while a disappointment that the reporter apparently failed to grasp, let alone convey, the significance of the event in question.

This report falls short in three ways: it uses an incongruous headline, unillustrative examples, and an unresourceful reporter.

Incongruous headline: since winter 1977, China has been holding exams for university entrance every year. And every year the exams open an escape route for some people. The top scorers get into the top schools. This is to say, producing elites is hardly the unique significance of the 1977 exam.

Unillustrative examples: so, assuming the headline holds, who are the elites from the 1977 class (which happened to be my class)? According to the report, a couple of unheard of Chinese immigrants in the US, and a couple of teachers in unheard of Chinese universities. Hardly elites, unless being American implies such an ascension. The report mentions in passing a few famous names such as Zhang Yimou, but fails to provide any story about those people.

Wrong reporter: apparently the reporter, who might otherwise be quite competent, was unable to find more representative or interesting sources from the class of 1977. I don't blame him. To have deep connections in China or deep understanding of China's history is too much to ask from an American newsroom journalist.

What I don't understand is why the Times does not use a Chinese writer or reporter who has better grasp and sources for things like the 1977 exam. I have been reading the Times for many years and have yet to see a major report on China with a Chinese-name byline.

If I were to write a report on this subject, I would not focus on how the 1977 exam changed a few people's life but instead how it generated a class with no precedence or antecedence. It was the first and the last exam of the lost generation of idealists, and it picked out a collection of the most aspiring students who, with no university to go to for ten years, had labored at the bottom of society and gained real understanding of China's problems. This unique, often painful, experience was what made them a class with unparalleled dedication to learning and, subsequently, a practical mainstay of China's transition to modernization.

I would have no problem to find representative members of this class.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"The Making of a Story" by Alice LaPlante

I brought this book along - an arbitrary choice more or less - for pleasure reading during vacation. Now I'm unexpectedly pleased. Whenever I get a few minutes between activities I want to open it. This is probably one of the most open-minded yet truly informative craft books you will find today. The author's intelligence as a writer and a thinker springs onto the pages. I suspect any writer who does not have an MFA (like me) might learn a few things while enjoying the read. I especially relish the "Reading as a Writer" sections.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Cancun Surprises


Mayans have Chinese blood, a local man tells us. The man has mixed European and native Mexican blood, and speaks nearly perfect English. Any evidence? I ask. "See that woman?" He points to one of the hotel staff walking by. "See her eyes?" I glance at her as she glances back at me, suspicious. Indeed, the Mayan woman's eyes look more like mine than his or my husband's. Further, the Mayans have names such as Chu, Chen, and Qi. "Those are Chinese names," our companion says positively. I find myself unable to dispute.

And the Mayans have Mongolian blood, he adds. "You know about the Mongolian spot, right?" "No." "You don't know?" He is genuinely surprised. "The Mongolians have a black spot here," he places his palm on his lower back, where the tailbone might be. "And the Mayan kids have it too. It disappears at twelve." Some Mayan children will even offer to show their black spots to tourists.

Doll in Bread

Last night, we bought a loaf of fruit bread from a Mexican supermarket. This morning when we sliced the bread, a tiny white plastic figure emerged from within. We brought the figurer to our hotel concierge, Andy. Her eyebrow leaped. "You found that?" She said something about a child who finds the doll is responsible for bringing food to the celebration on February 3rd. This is what I found on the internet afterward:

Rosca de Reyes
Three Kings Sweet Bread

Rosca is the name given to any ring-shaped bread or cookie. This sweet bread was once used by the friars to evangelize: a small doll, representing the Christ child, is baked right in the bread- "hidden", to symbolize the hiding of the infant from King Herod's troops on the day of Los Santos Inocentes, the Holy Innocents. This treat is traditionally served on the festive Three Kings Day, when the children receive their toys. Whoever gets the slice of rosca with the doll in it has to provide the tamales and atole for the next party, on Candlemas.

Caribbean Blues

"How many blues?" A Mexican girl named Pamela asks me. We are looking at the blue waves of the Caribbean crashing on the beach below the balcony. Surprised by the question, I turn to gaze at the soaring waves again. Before the question was asked, there was one blue; now there are many shades.

"Fifty six," Pamela says.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Finding Iris Chang"

Has anyone read this book by Paula Kamen? My attention was called to it by the author interview that set off objections from Iris Chang’s parents and some friends. Read the interview and comments here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Flaubert etc. in San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is one of my daughter's favorites. Yesterday she named a flamingo there 'Flaubert.' When asked why, she said, "Flaubert is a nice name for a flamingo. He's looking at you upside-down."

Left: "Flaubert"

Right: "Gregorie and Jean-Luc"

Left: "'Tourists.'"

Below: "Family Vacation"

A bonus photo (below): "Claim Device"

(Photo copyrights 2007, Sonya Eberlein. All rights reserved)