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Interview: Grass Widow

by: Whole Beast Rag

Jeffrey Yang is a poet, translator and editor, whose collections include Aquarium and Vanishing-Line, both published by Graywolf Press. Yang’s most recent literary venture was translating June Fourth Elegies, a collection of poetry by 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo of China. He lives and works in New York state.

WHOLE BEAST RAG: Although there is almost always a political element in a work, whether intentional or not, do you feel that incorporating politics more directly into a piece or collection increases its value and/or depth?

JEFFREY YANG: No, but I also feel that not incorporating politics more directly into a piece wouldn’t increase its value/depth either. It seems in fact that once this actually becomes a question for a writer, framed in this way, it would be hard to pull off in the work itself. At some point things have to click organically from within (the work, the mind, etc.) whether politically direct or indirect, it doesn’t matter (and of course arises out of the cultural context of where one’s writing). Otherwise it will come across as contrived, or simply done for effect or what have you. I think what’s more important is being socially, politically, historically, scientifically engaged as much as we can in our lives and not being afraid to confront these things in our work. The art of it all depends on how it’s done. Though the obvious extreme is Hollywood where hardly anything of socio-political import gets funded, which is why a filmmaker like Robert Kramer moved to Paris in the eighties.

WBR: Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, was the one who was able to pass along the poems that you were eventually asked to translate. Was she, at any time, penalized for this action, and were you in contact with her at any time during the translation process? If so, could you describe that relationship?

JY: I have never been in touch with Liu Xia. Initially, she passed along some poems to PEN, who forwarded them on to me. By the time I was really immersed in translating Liu Xiaobo, she was under house arrest and there was no way for me to reach her.

WBR: Could you comment on Liu Xiaobo’s perception of the West in terms of its influence in modernizing China, but also perhaps degrading rural life in the country due to its modernization (especially in reference to the quote, “I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense. If we stand back from Western civilization for a moment, we can see that it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general.”)?

JY: Well, this is a large question and I’m wary of speaking for Liu Xiaobo in interpreting exactly what he means in this quotation. In recent history, if we see “Western influence” as dating back to British imperialism, this certainly led to underdevelopment in the countryside, though there were many other reasons why rural life was in chaos by the late Qing dynasty under the rule of the warlords, two of which being taxes that favored the rich (sounds familiar?) and conscription. And so Sun Yat-sen, who’s seen as the father of modernization in China, was a huge supporter of land reform. Liu Xiaobo, too, has been an outspoken supporter of land reform, in this case, for example, supporting legislation that lets farmers own the land they farm rather than the government owning it, as it does now. But perhaps by “degrading” you mean in an ecological sense, which is true of the whole of China, which is the site of a massive, ongoing environmental disaster that affects the whole world. At the heart of it, though, the Chinese government can only blame themselves for allowing such rampant, unchecked industrialization for so many years, foreign investors (and consumers) notwithstanding. The good thing is there’s been a very strong, widely-supported environmental movement underway that is only gaining in momentum, so that even popular protests in small cities have prevented new chemical factories from being built. This has even led to the government investing billions of yuan in green energy alternatives, though one only needs to smell the air in Beijing to realize how dire things are (or drink the tap water). Going back to Liu’s quote, I think the “flaws of humanity” he’s referring to regarding Western civilization include materialism, greed, celebrity worship, huge gap between the rich and poor, imperialist practices, shameful military defense industry; all these things, if I’m not mistaken, he has written about before. And what he perceives as its usefulness for reforming China in the present, I believe he’s referring to such things as more checks and balances in government, a separation of powers in government, freedom of speech and of the press, human dignity and equality, political transparency—those things outlined in Charter 08, though one can certainly critique how these values are actually practiced by governments in the “West.” I guess this leads back to the flaws.

WBR: The year after Liu Xiaobo’s poems were sent to the U.S., in 2010, he received the Nobel Peace Prize while still in prison. What is your reaction to Republic of China President Ma Ying-jiu, as well as several other world leaders congratulating him on his Nobel, and calling for his release from prison?

JY: Well, perhaps these leaders meant what they said, though they didn’t do much to pressure China to actually release him. Actual political, diplomatic pressure would involve a plan to allow Chinese leadership to save themselves from embarrassment in releasing him. I think anyone with a sense of justice wants such prisoners of conscience to be freed, and in China Liu is one of many, like the young Uyghur writer Nurmuhemmet Yasin who is still serving a ten-year prison sentence for publishing a short story he wrote. But one must also recognize that according to the Chinese judicial system, Liu Xiaobo did break the law, as according to our judicial system we are told Bradley Manning broke the law. That it’s possible people prefer the truth of things doesn’t matter to those who make and enforce laws that preserve their own seats of power.

WBR: His Holiness the Dalai Lama agreed to write the preface for June Fourth Elegies. What, if known, prompted the Dalai Lama to do the preface, and what was your reaction to his agreeing to do this?

JY: The Dalai Lama supports political and social reform in China, and thus supports Liu Xiaobo. I discussed possible preface writers with my publisher Graywolf Press, and we decided in the spirit of nothing ventured to ask the Dalai Lama. When he accepted, we all felt blessed and ecstatic. The official letter he sent with the preface typed out is framed and hanging in the Graywolf office.

WBR: Do you feel that translation work is, at times, inadequate in expressing what is so carefully crafted in another language? Do you feel that it helps the international community better understand its inhabitants who speak a different language?

JY: If we’re talking about inadequacy, I think language itself is as inadequate as translation. I love reading too many books in English translation to feel translating is inadequate. And let’s face it: there’s lots written in any language (I really believe this without knowing every language) that isn’t “carefully crafted” at all. When I feel a translation is inadequate it’s usually because the translation is crappy, not because there’s a problem itself with translation. I think being careful, thoughtful, and aware is just as important for a translator as it is for a poet. And throughout history translation has revitalized cultures and furthered mutual understanding.

WBR: Could you comment on how relations with China may change with the presidential election?

JY: If Romney wins that’s easy to predict: a change for the worse.