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Love in the New Millennium interview

Love in the New Millennium interview

‘I think of this book as the fruit born of the love between Eastern and Western cultures’ Read our Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist interview with author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen who tells us how much of Can Xue’s writing she’s translated. 

 

Can Xue, author of Love in the New Millennium

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I am very excited and grateful. I have waited so many years for my real readers. At last I see them and, of course, hope that the group is becoming bigger and bigger. I deeply thank my judges.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book Love in the New Millennium?

Love in the New Millennium is a hopeful book about how love between men and women can still be realised — even in extreme hardship, despite all the odds. The book tries to chase the feeling of beauty, like a rose in the dim light:  the more you stare at it, the more you can make it out.

You are acknowledged as one of the most significant avant-garde writers. Do you think your inspiration comes more from the Chinese tradition or is it more global?

To expand on what I wrote in the acknowledgments: “I think of this book as the fruit born of the love between Eastern and Western cultures, its images pushing forward a wholly new type of human self and mechanism of freedom.” I took the form from Western culture, but all the feelings came from my mainly Chinese heart. A vase, a vessel, an export.

 

Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, translator of Love in the New Millennium

What has it been like to be longlisted?

The outpouring of support since the longlist was announced, from friends and colleagues, as well as from far-flung people and places, has impressed upon me the broad impact of the Man Booker International Prize and what it means to have an award of this significance offered for fiction in translation. While the process of translation can be somehow both dialogic and incredibly solitary, the longlisting prompted the sort of lively, in-depth conversations that I seek as a translator.

The longlisting of Love in the New Millennium also refreshes for me how fortunate I am to translate Can Xue as an author and friend who recognizes that a translation can "renew the artistic performance" of literature; to work alongside my husband Nick who as a scholar and artist brings insight to everything I translate and write; to have grown up in a household where books were everywhere; to have in Yale University Press such a supportive publisher, including among many others John Donatich, Danielle D'Orlando, Susan Laity, and Noreen O'Connor-Abel; and to have been guided as part of my education by expert translators and teachers of translation, first Barbara Harshav and later Robert E. Hegel.

What did you most like about translating Love in the New Millennium?

Translation is a practice that one either enjoys or doesn't at all. In translating Can Xue's writing, I enjoy working with fictive worlds operating at a tangent to reality but also governed by what the author terms an inner mechanism. The equivalence and non-equivalence of these fictive worlds to reality is cognate to the ways words in one language do and don't have equivalences in another. I was particularly aware of this factor because Love in the New Millennium is actually (hard as it may seem to believe) rooted in a more realistic world than much of Can Xue's other fiction. The search for lost love and missing hometowns becomes a meditation on history, the loss of history, the surveillance of history, and the active destruction of history: "Wasn't history an event that repeated unforgettably in the mind? […] Is history thinking and seeing clearly?" The antique dealer Mr. You pursues nighttime missions "to venture into the darkness of history, to merge into and remold those histories," while the historian of the cotton mill stands accused of "trying to reverse the verdict of history" before the mill is finally destroyed.

Love in the New Millennium also refracts nineteenth-century French romances including La Dame aux Camélias and L'Éducation sentimentale across the world and into the present moment, which made for fun intertextual sleuthing into a genre of literature with which I was not terribly familiar before this translation and which I really enjoy much more in Can Xue's version. It is worth tracking the character of the mysterious Lady of the Camellias, an aging opera star, who shrieks bizarre, enigmatic arias until they sink into the listeners' souls: a striking image for experimental authorship.

 

You have previously translated Can Xue’s novel, The Last Lover. Did you find that your knowledge of Xue’s previous work impacted the process of translating this one?

The translation of Can Xue's The Last Lover (Yale University Press, 2014) prepared me to recognize the formal experiments the author makes in longer or novel-length fiction, even though the structure of Love in the New Millennium is quite different and the progression more episodic. While many readers will know Can Xue first for her short stories, the longform fiction is stunning in its complexity and patterning combined with the dreamlike associative motion of the text moment to moment that also characterizes Can Xue's short fiction.

Of course, too, the two novels overlap in theme. The Last Lover is in many ways about people constantly moving away from each other, constantly leaving each other; however, as the book's central couples move further away from each other in space, their communication grows deeper. In Love in the New Millennium, fidelity comes to mean staying faithful to one's inner or spiritual nature, so that going to prison or fleeing to the desert become forms of devotion to the beloved.

As Eileen Myles points out in the foreword, Love in the New Millennium is also very much about work, "astonishingly hard work," and so is the translation. Can Xue models a drive and proficiency that most of us can only aspire toward. I was asked at a conference recently how much of Can Xue's writing I have translated and realized in the moment that it is now something like half a million [Chinese] characters. The follow-up question was on the emotional labor of translation, which struck me as perceptive and also highly relevant to the similarities in translating The Last Lover and Love in the New Millennium. Both are books that, for all—perhaps because of all—the experimental shape and dissociative logic and bizarre imagery are also at many points touching and sometimes painful in their rigorous analysis of the patterns of how relationships are always moving, always human parts shift in and out of syncopation with each other.