Archive for the ‘translations’ Category

Women In Art: May-lee Chai on women of colour writers

[I was very honored to be featured on the Canadian blog: KickAction, a blog for Girls Action Foundation, which is a feminist, anti-oppression non-profit in Canada. I was interviewed by the blogger: J. Rosel Kim. You can follow her on Twitter @jroselkim and read her blog here: JRoselKim Blog. I am pasting the interview from Kickaction.ca below.]

Submitted by jroselkim on 8 February, 2011 – 11:59.

May-lee Chai is a writer, and an educator, based in California. I had first encountered her through the Angry Reader of the Week series in Angry Asian Man (a great resource for Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians), and was impressed by her articulateness as well as her impressive bibliography. Her books have been recognized and listed by many awards, as well as translated into other languages. When I contacted her via Twitter about this Q&A, she was gracious enough to provide me with thoughtful answers about working as a woman of colour writer, and the health scare that turned her to book-writing.

I’ve noticed a common theme of migration in your books, as well as your own life. How has your own history and background influenced your writing career? How do you decide to write about the things you do?

I’ve moved a lot and lived in several countries. Both my parents moved a lot in their lives and childhood. My father as a child of WWII had to move multiple times in order to escape the advancing Japanese Army in China. My mother in America didn’t live through war, but her family moved 27 times by the time she was 17. After they married each other, they moved us all as a family to very different kinds of environments. I don’t have a sense of having a hometown or a place I can return to that is, definitively, “Home.” I think perhaps this may be why I’m drawn to stories about migration, war, disruption… but I’ve never tried to analyze myself seriously and figure out why I’m drawn to certain topics.

Your works have been translated into many languages – how involved do you get in the translation process? What kind of communication do you engage in with the translators before and during the process?

Sadly, I’m never involved in the translation process! Foreign publishers either contact my agent or my American publishers. I’d love to be involved, but no one’s ever asked me any questions.

However, I’ve translated a book (from Chinese to English): the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin, the famed 20th century Chinese novelist. My publisher worked very closely with Ba Jin’s daughter and a member of the Ba Jin Association in China so that we could have the translation rights as well as family photos. Ba Jin was unfortunately deceased by the time I had found a publisher, but his daughter actually let my publisher go through private family albums. I was able to tell my publisher what kind of photos I’d like for the book and I had a whole CD to choose from by the end of the process.

I can understand why most commercial publishers don’t have the time to deal directly with the author in another country, but I think it’s kind of a shame that authors are usually not involved in the translation process.

You worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before turning to writing books. When and how did you decide that you wanted to switch to fiction (and non-fiction) writing?

I decided to take the plunge into novel writing after I had a cancer scare. I had a fast growing tumor and, suddenly at age 24, I thought I might be facing great illness and even death. Before that moment, I never dared to devote myself to writing a whole novel. It seemed impractical. I didn’t know anyone who wrote novels or short stories. But when faced with the prospect of dying without having at least tried to write a novel, I realized it was time to pursue my dreams.  Fortunately, my tumor turned out to be benign and my first novel was published after I wrote it. But if I hadn’t had that wake-up call, who knows if I ever would have dared?

In your opinion, what are some challenges that are unique to women of colour writers?

Stereotypes are still persistent and, alas, they often sell very well. So in addition to having to write really, really well (as all writers should do), we also have to battle stupid notions of what we should be writing about and how we represent ourselves and our characters. It’s really insulting, for example, to be told, “Your English is too good!” I’ve heard that criticism because some people in publishing think Asians need to sound like fortune cookies. Fortunately, I do think the stereotypes are changing. But I’d be lying if I said the stereotypes weren’t a problem.

What are some tips you have for young women of colour writers? What are some resources they could use?

Don’t give up. Read, read, read. Know your field. Read the classics and contemporary authors. Read world literature. Make connections to other writers. If you find a writer’s work you like, write to that person and say so! It’s easier to fight the stereotypes when you have friends helping you, so reach out to others. As for resources, there are some great blogs out there. For example, I love Angry Asian Man and Disgrasian. They have tons of news and make fun of the stereotypes about Asian Americans, which helps. SharifWrites and LargeHeartedBoy have interesting interviews and essays by all kinds of writers. Your  blog– www.jroselkim.wordpress.com –is a great resource!

What are you working on at the moment? Where can people find updates about your upcoming work(s)?

I’m working on a novel about a man who uncovers a terrible crime but can’t reveal it outright because he himself is involved in shady activities. It’s still considered “literary fiction” as opposed to a straightforward detective or crime novel, and it features people who have to leave their home and hide in a faraway city. Somehow I just can’t leave that “migration” theme, can I? For updates, readers can always check my blog.

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Just received copies of the Hebrew edition of my novel, MY LUCKY FACE!

This exciting looking package from the Israeli publisher (Hed Arzi) arrived today:


Inside I found these cool paperbacks of MY LUCKY FACE:


I really love this cover design. I think it works quite well with the book’s themes: a woman who on the surface seems to have it all, but that only masks her more complicated life. Also, the Chinese theme of “face,” the public persona you must project and protect and which can hide your true self.

And here’s the back cover:


I wish I knew how to read Hebrew. The translation is by Idit Paz.

(I’m gonna send some copies to friends who do know Hebrew so they can tell me what the back says!)

People interested in getting their own Hebrew copy will need to contact the publisher Sifriat Maariv, which I believe is a division of Hed Arzi.

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One of the saddest consequences of China’s urban boom is that many rural families are now separated. Parents are forced to look for work in the cities, but they are not allowed to bring their children with them.

As a result, children are left behind in villages, to be cared for by one or more elderly grandparents.

This essay was written by a young girl in Gansu Province.

Essay title: “Waiting for Chinese New Year”
by Du Fuxing, age 14
Gansu Province, Zhen Yuan County, New City Junior High School

(Translated by May-lee Chai)

“Ye-Ye, when are Papa and Mama coming home? It’s already the 28th! In two days, it’ll almost be the New Year. How come they haven’t come back yet? They’ve already been gone for three years,” my little brother asked my grandfather anxiously.

“Soon, soon. In two days, they’ll be home. Your father just called and said they’ve already boarded the train. They’ll be here by the 30th,” Ye-Ye consoled my brother.

Hope Again
Just like the year before, my little brother and I got up at the crack of dawn on the 30th, ate breakfast, and then rushed to the crossroads to wait. For three years, this was the only thing that made us happy. Although it was quite chilly at dawn and the wind was blowing, we didn’t feel the cold. There was already a crowd waiting on the side of the road, middle-aged people, children, even old folks holding babies that weren’t yet a year old. Nobody talked, just craned their necks to see better. My brother kicked stones on the side of the road from time to time. Meanwhile, I didn’t take my eyes off the road, watching for the bus to come.

An Approaching Bus
At last the first bus arrived. Everyone surged forward. A few young people got off the bus, grabbed hold of their parents, picked up their kids, and went home. Everyone else sighed and went back to their spots waiting on the side of the road, the same as my brother and me. Then the second bus came and a few more people got off the bus, and a few more people left the crowd still waiting on the side of the road like my brother and me. Bus after bus came and left, until there were just a few people still waiting.

The Long Wait

My brother grew impatient and ran back and forth, and my earlier hopes began to give way to fear. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “Papa and Mama aren’t coming home again? How can they not come home? They haven’t been home for three years.” However, I still held onto a thread of hope because there was still one more bus to come, and so I held my breath and waited. Then at long last, the final bus came as expected and the remaining people greeted their family members. Laughing and talking, they left. Once again, my brother and I had not seen our father.

“This is the fourth time already! The fourth time!” My brother picked up a rock and angrily tossed it across the road.

Dire Circumstances
Ten years ago, our grandmother got sick and passed away and our family incurred a great debt for her medical care. Papa had no choice but to go to Tibet as a laborer. That was ten years that just slipped away. At that time, I was four and my younger brother only two. Because Mama was looking after us, we didn’t feel lonely. Then five years ago, Mama also joined the wave of people leaving to find work, and she went with Papa to Tibet. I was in third grade then; my brother had just started first grade. On the day our parents left us, we cried and begged them not to go. We said we were too little, we still needed our parents to love and care for us. But Papa and Mama insisted upon going. Now there were only three of us in the family: our grandfather, my brother and me, struggling to survive.

Losing Hope
From that time onward, Papa and Mama sent us money every two months, and my brother and I got new book bags and new clothes. When we saw how enviously our classmates looked at us, we felt very happy for a time. But our optimistic outlook didn’t last long. We didn’t wash our clothes; there was no one to help us with our homework; when classmates bullied us, there was no one to tell. When we did naughty things at home, no one punished us. After awhile, we stopped doing our chores, we didn’t feel like doing our homework, we didn’t want to play with our classmates, we didn’t want to talk to other people. We just sat in front of the TV for company. How we longed to hear the sound of Mama scolding us like other kids. How we wished Papa was there to spank us.

New Year Firecrackers
On New Year’s eve, as lights were coming on in other people’s houses, firecrackers were going off outside every door, as people began to eat their New Year’s dinners, I felt timid, my brother became lazy and sluggish, so the two of us and our grandfather just watched TV to pass the New Year. Although the New Year’s programs featured all my favorite celebrities, this year I wasn’t interested in them one bit.
Then the phone rang. My brother nudged me and I nudged my brother, but neither of us would answer it, so Ye-Ye finally picked up the receiver.

The Phone Call
“It’s your parents calling! They said the hotel [where they worked] wouldn’t let any employees leave so they couldn’t come home. They want to talk to you two,” Ye-Ye shouted to us loudly. But neither my brother nor I paid any attention. My brother was already changing his clothes to go to bed, and I was falling asleep in front of the TV set as the New Year’s programs played on.

The Dream
That night I dreamed that my brother and I had, in fact, been able to pick up Mama and Papa and bring them home. Papa had bought us special “One Thousand Bangs” brand firecrackers. My brother was running around happily setting them off. From time to time, he threw one at me playfully and I covered my ears and called out to him in mock dismay, “Have mercy! Have mercy!”
Miss Du Fuxing’s essay was given a writing award sponsored by the non-profit, all volunteer Education and Science Society (www.esscare.org), which provides both teacher training and support for rural schools in China. The essay was written in 2007 and nominated by Miss Du’s teacher for the award.

For more info on the NGO that sponsors this contest, click here!

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I’m very honored to be a volunteer with an amazing non-profit educational group that helps children in rural China so that they can receive an education. Currently, many rural families cannot afford to educate their children as public education is no longer free in China but rural salaries have not kept up with inflation.

A rural schoolroom

A rural schoolroom

For more info on the group Support Education in Rural China, click here

SERC sponsors an annual essay contest for school children and teachers in rural China.

I translated some of the essays and will post them from time to time.

Here’s one of my favorites, written by a young girl of the Hui ethnic minority group.

Title: Two Bottles of Tap Water
Author: Ma Wenyue, grade 6
From: Tou Guan Township, Ningxia Hui Minority Autonomous Region

(Translation copyright 2008 by May-lee Chai)

I am a child who lives on a big mountain where we have very limited access to water. Therefore, getting drinking water is one of the biggest problems we face. In order to have enough water, every family has a big cistern for collecting water. In the winter, we gather snow to put inside. In the summer, whenever it rains, first we all clean our yards, then we dig a channel from the middle of the yard to the cistern so the water will run inside. We use water sparingly. The water we first use to wash vegetables, we then use to wash our faces. Next we use the same water to wash our clothes. Because it takes so much water to wash clothing, everyone must accumulate several days’ worth of water first. Even when the water has turned black, no one throws it away. We cannot waste a single drop.

Nai-Nai’s Illness
One time my grandmother got sick and had to go the county hospital. My father and I went to visit Grandma at the hospital. The trees along the road seemed to fly backwards as the cars drove by. In the country seat, skyscrapers loomed, and “like the endless stream of horses and carriages from days of old,” cars and people were everywhere. Such prosperity! At the hospital, Nai-nai was lying on a cot, but when she saw us come in, she was overjoyed.

However, I realized I had a stomach ache and my aunt took me to the bathroom. Afterwards she showed me how to flush the toilet. Oh! It was such a shame that people in the city used such clean water just to flush a toilet! If this were our village, we could have used the water from a single flush for several days. Such precious water shouldn’t be wasted. I carefully turned on the faucet and sparkling water suddenly poured out. Every drop seemed to dance with life. I took a drink. So sweet! My whole body felt cool and refreshed.

City Water

After I returned to my grandmother’s room, I asked my aunt to give me two empty water bottles, which I filled with the tap water. I wanted to bring them home to show my mother, younger brother, and younger sister so they could taste the tap water, too.

The Journey Home
On the bus home, I held on tight to the two bottles of water. Once we got off at our stop, we still had to walk some seven miles to our village. On the road, the hot sun beat down upon the ground, and I grew thirsty. At one point, Papa asked me for one of the bottles of water, but I wouldn’t give it to him. We endured our thirst as the sun bore down upon us all the way home.

Village Taste Test
Once we got home, I brought out the bottles, and my brother and sister ran towards me. I held the water up high and said, “Look! This water is from the city!” They each took a sip then and proclaimed in unison, “So sweet!” Mama also took a bottle with great care, afraid to spill a single drop. She tasted just a drop, licking the side of the bottle’s mouth. She agreed, “Sweet. City people’s water is not the same as our water here.”

Promise to Mother
I vowed in my heart, “When I grow up, we’re going to have tap water too, and Mama can drink all she wants.”

Ma Wenxue wrote her essay in 2007. It was nominated by Ma’s teacher for the SERC student essay writing award. It has never been translated into English before.

Hui Minority villagers

Hui Minority villagers

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