The Spurred Storyteller: A Conversation With Tang Fei
I met Tang Fei in person for the first time at the Chinese Nebulas in 2014. Though everyone in attendance was dressed up, she carried a backpack in the shape of a floppy-eared rabbit, and I knew right away that we’d get along. In email as well as conversation, she is chatty, vivacious, funny, and also direct—she’s perfectly comfortable letting me know that she doesn’t think something I wrote is any good, which makes her positive comments all the more valuable.
A native of Shanghai who presently makes her home in Beijing (though she tries to get away from the city as often as she can), Tang Fei says that she has always felt more at home in large metropolises like London and New York with their robust public transportation networks and well-curated museums. Rather than rushing through places like a tourist, she prefers to linger in each city when she travels, couch surfing or staying at hostels until she has had a chance to observe the life of the locals with her photographer’s keen eyes.
Having switched careers five times after graduating from college (including stints as a neuroscience research assistant and as a barista), Tang Fei now works as a freelance magazine writer while continuing her artistic pursuits in fiction and documentary photography. A prolific author, she has published the equivalent of over one hundred twenty-five thousand words of short fiction in a lot of different genres: fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, wuxia, etc., though she always seems to write in a way that transgresses strict genre classifications.
It was a pleasure to interview her for Clarkesworld. Our interview was conducted in Chinese, and I did the translation myself.
The act of storytelling recurs as a theme in your fiction. “Call Girl” and “Pepe” are both about storytellers; trying to make sense of the world via narrative is a key element in “A Universal Elegy.” What does storytelling mean to you and why is it important?
“Call Girl” and “Pepe” were both written about seven, eight years ago. I was having a hard time back then, and I felt I needed to do something so that the world and I could forgive each other: writing stories was the only means for mediation.
With my stories, I don’t just express my feelings; I’m also trying to understand the society around me, the age I’m living through, everything that I witness or experience. Sometimes events overtake us like speeding cars, and we need the time and means to digest them.
Thanks to your question, I went back and reread the stories again. In a way, they could be read as mirroring each other. In “Pepe,” the narrator treats reality as part of his story, and by using his only skill—the ability to spin tales—he manages to disguise himself as a human and thereby survive. The men in “Call Girl,” on the other hand, become nonhuman through stories divorced from reality.
While it’s interesting to compare and contrast these two stories in this way, I think the treatment simplifies both of them—an outcome most repugnant to an author. Like many other elements, “stories” appears in my fiction not just as literal “stories,” but as metaphors. They rather resemble the restless, destructive, dark energy found inside young girls—at least that’s the case in these two stories.
By the time I came to write “A Universal Elegy,” I was starting to have a kind of self-awareness as a writer—that is, although stories still served the same needs for me mentioned earlier, they were also running ahead of me. Stories were born for their own sake, and I was nothing but their vessel. Under the influence of this new perspective, I began to doubt the narrator. Coincidentally, the way the media chose to report on certain happenings at the time also baffled me. These events conspired to make me suspicious of the narrator.
In “A Universal Elegy,” the narrator is unreliable. Yet, the reliability of the narrative has to be built on such a shaky foundation. From the very start, the narrative takes the form of indirect quotations with quotation marks added.
I also want to point out that in modern Chinese, “story” (故事) and “fiction” (小说) are not exact equivalents. A story is more rooted in the folk and oral traditions, and thus possesses more resilience and vitality. This is why I’ve always called myself a storyteller.
Story, for me, is a word infused with magic. Every time I say it, I feel a joy in my spirit and pleasure in my senses.
Tell us a little about your photography. Any favorite images you want to share with readers in the US? Do you think photography is also about storytelling?
Though I haven’t studied photography for long, the process has been filled with fortunate encounters. My first teacher was a math instructor in college who went by the nickname “Yi Mao” (“One Hair”): erudite, careless of his dress, and filled with insights about photography. Because of him, I managed to avoid many beginner’s pitfalls, for which I’m forever grateful.
Later, I studied at a photography studio where I worked on some interesting projects, including designing and making books by hand. I participated in a group show called “Homecoming” and produced an album of photographs about my childhood. I wrote a letter to my departed grandfather, burned it, and then collected the ashes in the last frame in the album.
My chosen style of photography, documentary photography, requires a great deal of effort. To complete a project, it isn’t unusual to have to take pictures for four or five months, and many projects require the investment of several years—all for an unpredictable, uncontrollable outcome, which includes the very real possibility of failure. For a freelancer faced with the need to make a living, the pressure can be easily imagined.
I was lucky in that I managed to complete my first independent documentary project, a set of portraits of contemporary LGBT life in China, and got it published on QQ.com, China’s largest web news platform [KL: This site is run by the Chinese web giant Tencent, whose name may be more familiar to American readers].
In 2013, I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a workshop run by the famous photographer Shen Wei, who is based in New York and teaches at the School of Visual Arts. From him, I learned the diverse expressive possibilities of photography as a contemporary art form. One of my dreams is to systematically study photography at a top art academy.
While it’s possible to tell a story with pictures, narrative is not the main purpose of photography. The presentation of a photograph is very important: whether in a book, in an exhibit, or incorporated into a multimedia work.
This is a moment I captured in a park. See? A photograph is perfectly capable of being the vehicle for a story. But where does it start? Where does it end? Is it fiction or documentation? Even without any kind of post-processing, the story is already permeated by uncertainties.
Does writing inspire your photography? What about the other way around?
Taking pictures and telling stories share at least one thing in common: the focus on details. As art forms, both are selective in their expression. You cannot re-present reality completely: one, it’s technically infeasible; and two, doing so would be meaningless because complete reality is chaos. But, sometimes, practitioners go to the other extreme and rush to impose ideology on their art, too eager to fix the meaning, no, the nature of their work.
For my own photography, I won’t use post-processing to eliminate so-called “clutter” or “flaws” because they are real and vivid, and at the moment I press the shutter, I usually account for them in my composition subconsciously. When I write, I won’t force any concepts into the story either, but prefer to let the characters speak in their own voices and make their own decisions.
Creators shouldn’t impose their conclusions or views on the audience. No matter how we try to control the work by picking certain details and the form of their presentation, the artwork itself will always display the complexity inherent in the subject, which often exceeds the expectation of the creator in pleasantly surprising ways. I’ve grown ever firmer in my faith that storytelling and photography are both ways to help me understand this world.
I’m also interested in other art forms such as film, sculpture, drama, and drawing, but my passion is dance theater. When I was an undergraduate, I used my spare time to attend a year’s worth of classes at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. In 2011, I attended a butoh workshop held in Beijing by Yukio Waguri, a student of Tasumi Hijikata, one of the founders of butoh. To express the notion of death directly with the body was more than a shocking experience—it was terrifying. All these other art forms probably influenced my writing in imperceptible ways.
How would you describe the sort of stories you like to tell?
My stories are my fruits. Like a tree, bearing fruit is my burden, my duty, my need, and the reason for my existence. The meaning fruits hold for the fruit tree is far greater than the meaning the tree holds for the fruits. At the same time, I also hope that these fruits could bring a bit of light and beauty to this world, akin to a voice that declares “life is difficult, but it is important to continue to live with honesty and dignity.” Even if one day my works will turn to dust to be scattered by the wind, they deserve all my efforts to bring them into being.
If works of art are supposed to resemble people, I think my stories all contain a trace of wickedness: they don’t follow the rules and possess prickly spurs and dark places.
You once told me, “For the most part, writing a story is based on the author’s misunderstanding of the world. But translating a story is about understanding another person and grasping their work.” Can you elaborate on this?
You have a good memory!
I think a writer tells a story based on her understanding of the world. But the real world is complicated. No matter how much effort the observer puts into it, her perspective necessarily distorts the resulting observation. I’ve always tried to keep this in mind: I am limited; my understanding of the world is biased. Even if I devote my entire life to experience the infinite world with my individual self, the effort will not make up for this kind of bias. The best that an individual can achieve is to asymptotically approach that understanding of the infinite.
Translation, on the other hand, is a re-creation of an existing work. The entire effort of the translator is devoted to the work, itself an already distorted image. How has the author misunderstood the world? This touches upon the very heart of the work’s nature. A translator must expend all his energy to precisely convey this misunderstanding to a reader from another culture, as though copying deformed contours.
Can you tell us a bit about differences in translators’ approaches to your work and what you’ve found interesting about such differences?
Sometimes I’m incredulous at my luck: I’ve had two Hugo winners be my translators! My observations below are necessarily limited by my appreciation of the subtleties of English.
There’s an obvious advantage to having writers act as translators. Their command of language effectively frees the works they translate from the stiltedness that plagues many translations, turning them into something more vibrant, better adapted to a new soil (I’m thinking of Xia Jia’s translations into Chinese of works originally written in English). Interestingly, mature writers have their own aesthetic which they imprint upon their translations like a signature.
As a sensitive and keen writer, John Chu is best at capturing the hard, treble voices in my work. He’s also meticulous about details. In “A Universal Elegy,” for example, he suggested “Dieresian” as the translation for the name of the alien race, which I just love. He captured the heart of this story with a perfect name that also fits the title of the piece.
You, on the other hand, are good at understanding what I meant between the lines—indeed, sometimes you manage to read and absorb not just the meaning, but a subtle emotional tone. In “Call Girl” and another unpublished translation, I was surprised at how you, as an adult man, could grasp the hidden currents within the hearts of schoolgirls and then re-express them fluently in another language. And I appreciate your depth of cross-cultural understanding, which allowed you to suggest the title of “Call Girl,” which is not a literal translation at all but achieves a similar effect.
Translation requires talent, perseverance, and dedication. I’m grateful to both of you for your excellent work.
What were some of the most memorable experiences for you at the WorldCons in San Antonio and London?
I love going to WorldCons. Through them, I’ve managed to become friends with many writers from other countries. I met John Chu, for example, at Emily Jiang’s reading. I also had the fortune of meeting Rachel Swirsky that same year. Ever since my friend Wang Meizi, a translator, recommended her “Eros, Philia, Agape” to me, I’ve been a fan.
I also like to introduce the works of Chinese writers who I like but who are not considered mainstream to readers in other countries. In London, I brought with me some printouts of English translations of Qitongren’s work [KL: “Qitongren” is a penname that literally translates to “The Bucket Rider”]. As it turned out, I vastly underestimated reader interest and ran out of copies. Sorry!
Since WorldCons are relaxed in mood and filled with activities, it’s like a holiday where I get to do things I normally don’t get to do. In London, I got to participate in the Masquerade, cosplaying an Ood girl. I had a great time.
I’m also working on a project documenting my WorldCon experiences. The current plan is to take pictures over five years—assuming things work out. Some of the photographs from 2013 have been curated into a small book.
What are you working on?
In the first half of 2015, I plan to finish my big fantasy novel, which I’ve been working on for six years. It started as a short story I wrote eight years ago. For two years, I didn’t think about it, but then the outline for a novel just popped into my head—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the outline had always been present in my mind but it took me two years to discover it. Once I decided to work on it, I wrote it at the average rate of one chapter per year. The writing itself didn’t consume much time, but most of the time was spent waiting for the story to emerge naturally. I’m like Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree.
Based on what I’ve got so far, this is going to be my favorite work.
In the second of half of 2015, I plan to finish three wuxia novellas. And, of course, I’m going to keep on working on my photography projects.