"I'm going to tell you a lot of love stories today," Yiyun Li said to begin her Two Voices event on the masterful Chinese writer Shen Congwen. Although little-known in the U.S., Congwen has been a hugely influential author on Li--as she declared during the event, Congwen's letters were one of the three books she brought with her when she emigrated from China to the United States in 1996.
In the enclosed audio you can hear Li discuss her translation of just those letters. Although Congwen was both a prolific and a successful author from the 1920s to the '40s, he became remarkably troubled when the Communists began their bid for power in 1949. After two failed suicide attempts he suffered a breakdown in 1949, and he never again wrote another word of fiction.
He did, however, write very many letters. As Li explained in an introductory note accompanying her translation of some of the letters in the journal A Public Space, she has undertaken a translation of Congwen’s letters for deeply personal reasons: she admits to an "obsession" with Congwen's letters and life story, as well as an "agony" at his "truncated career." As Li puts it, "his letters offer the only available glimpse of those stories he might have written."
In the audio Li reads from her translations. She starts with the love letters from Congwen's years-long courtship of his wife, who started out as his student of 18: "I have crossed many bridges, I have seen so many different kinds of clouds, I have drank all sorts of wine, but I have only loved one person at her best age."
Li also talks about her discovery of Congwen as a college student. She in fact discovered Congwen in an English translation of his masterpiece Border Down. After telling the audience that she read it in a single night, she explained, "I remember thinking, 'What a loss. I've never known this person for 18 years!'"
The letters also address Congwen's very personal crisis when the Communists take power in China. As he stoically writes to his wife of 15 years,
It's my own problem, it has nothing to do with you. No one else is responsible for my pain, I have learned it myself. We live in the world where it is inevitable this day would arrive, with bigger calamities coming. . . . I have to accept my fate.
The even deal with Congwen's pastoral perception of the China of his day:
Before daybreak you could hear the peasants' representatives talking, low and unintelligible off-stage. Later, when it was daylight, you could hear the knocking of the sieves in the flour mills, and then you knew the town was up. The ironsmiths at the streetcorner must have a big fire burning by now. The sound of metal hitting is crisp and clear.
Although a major writer in China who was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize during his lifetime, Congwen is little-known in the United States, with a translation of Border Town only appearing here in 2009. Li here gives us access a very personal side of a great author frequently compared to Chekhov. One hopes that Li's championship of this author will lead to more translations of his fiction in the future.