A visual artist who lives and work in Germany, Tsou Yung-Shan [鄒永珊] wrote a first novel that deals with immigration, isolation, and the difficulties to know where one belongs. This novel, The Waiting Room, was translated into French and published in September 2016 by french publishing house Piranha. She was interviewed by Pierre-Yves Baubry on September 27, 2016 for « Lettres de Taïwan ».
(The day I talked to Tsou Yung-Shan over Skype, Taiwan was battered by a strong typhoon. Tsou Yung-Shan, who lives and works as an artist in Germany, was staying at that time in New Mexico for an artist residency at Santa Fe Art Institute.)
Let’s talk about the weather. In The Waiting Room, characters are intimately connected to climate and weather elements. Did you dislike Taiwan’s weather yourself?
I am personally very allergic to wet weather. It is somehow very tiring. But Taiwan is an island surrounded by water and regularly hit by typhoons. There is nothing you can do to avoid them. Compared to Taiwan, Germany offers a big contrast in terms of weather. But compared to California, Europe is not dry. And I am now staying in New Mexico, a very desert place with very little water.
The feelings of unease and sadness experienced by your main character, Xu Mingzhang, are closely associated with humidity. Is that based on your own personal experience of moving to Germany?
I tried to find some expression of his mental state. I created this connection to wet weather, to the climate of Taiwan, in order to find his connection to Taiwan. Otherwise, he would have been a floating bird in some way. This is a literary association to describe his inner world. This is my experiment in this novel: not describing the sadness itself, but expressing it in another way.
Your writing comprises various styles, including very precise, linear and informative sentences ; juxtapositions of elements in a same sentence that make the sentence slowly moving from one point to another ; and powerful images often based on natural elements that reveal the inner worlds of the characters. I read that you have “drawn inspiration from the gulf between the German language” and your “mother tongue, using its more precise grammar to stretch the subtleties of Chinese”. Can you tell us more about that?
For example, I wrote some longer sentences describing one thing without any emotion, as a very objective observation. I think this drawing-like expression comes mostly from my visual artist background. In the meantime, I found that these descriptions’ style was not very Chinese. In German, if you want to describe something very precisely, the style, not only the grammar but also the forming of the sentence, are quite different from so-called “authentic Chinese”.
Some people who also understand German told me that when they heard my reading in Mandarin, they felt this was somehow a very German novel, “but in a good way.” they said. That means something because I am aware that I put my understanding about German language into Chinese language. In my writing, Mandarin is my expression, but what I do in developing my expression is about how to find new possibilities of contemporary Chinese writing. So I think it can be very interesting to put a reference from a foreign language into Chinese writing.
I tried to create different feelings with different writing styles but they have the same base: being relatively objective. I guess this must be very difficult to translate into a third language and to tell the difference between these different styles. And I would like to say, I really tend to make images with words.
As a visual artist, your works are mainly presented in the form of books-objects and installations that include writing. How is writing books different from creating art works in terms of preparatory work and inspiration? Are both approaches based on what you call “notes”?
This is not that art could do something that literature cannot do. They are just different artistic forms. Following interdisciplinary principles to explore the relationships between imagery and language is one of the very important gestures in my works. I don’t want to say one is better or cooler because they can do various things. For example, I talk about “notes” but the German word – Aufzeichnungen – is more precise. It originates from a verb that means “to record something”. I can use visual methods to record what I am going to do or to record my thoughts, or my working process, or even the recording itself. Words, pictures, videos can all be the mediums of the recording. That is why I am trying to put these thoughts not only in my writing but also in the plot of the novel. This is something completely conscious.
An art installation occupies a central part of the plot indeed….
Yes. And at the same time, you can see there are number of small segments which relate to notes that you take on a small pieces of paper and then put them all together. This has to do with my way of dealing with the structure of the novel. This seems chaotic and fragmental but this is my attempt. In the original Chinese version of the novel, I used some special way to write the number of the chapters, starting with # which is a typical German description that you file a document. This is difficult to translate. I gave the indication to my Taiwanese publisher and they used the punctuation. However, the usage seemed detached from the text because it is incompatible with the Chinese punctuation.
These chapter numbers don’t appear this way in the French translation…
Yes, I saw it but this was certainly somehow difficult to “translate”. So I have been thinking about how to make my book more complete with the dialogue between its visual and written languages when I started writing my second novel. I was very lucky to be able to do the layout of my second novel.
As a visual artist, you can somehow influence the way your work is seen and how the viewer is going to interact with it. As a writer, this is mostly beyond your control, isn’t it?
This is always my concern as an artist: how to make reading as a subject more visible and interactive. Since 2009, I decided very determinately that I don’t put words in my visual objects. I just use pictures because I tried to make some experiments to observe how people read books, and I discovered that if you put words as well as pictures into the books, most of people tend to read the words and don’t really see the pictures. Most of adult people think that reading is just about reading words and catch the literary information. This phenomenon was revealed to me in several ways: Before 2009, I presented my own “notes”, including my ideas and my research, but I am multicultural and I use different languages on my notes. If there were more Chinese characters, the German audience would tell me “Sorry, I cannot speak Chinese, I cannot understand you”. But there are other things in the books as well, not only Chinese characters but also pictures and German words. In Taiwan, some of the visitors have told me, “This is your privacy. I tend to not read these notes because I don’t want to offend you”.
Is the choice of a male character a way to move away from an autobiography and create some distance with your own experience of living in a different country? Or is it also a way to say something about Taiwanese men and women?
This book is not my autobiography. The choice of setting a male character is my strategy to make a distinction between my life and this novel. But, as you asked, this turned for me into a challenge, a mission in writing this novel: I had to deal with a male mind, or what a Taiwanese man’s concerns could be, what can a Taiwanese man can be. This means to me a starting point to write a fiction.
Your character is obviously waiting for something and cannot put into words what are his feelings. Is that a portrait of Taiwanese men in general?
No, I did not intend to describe a general image of Taiwanese men. I prefer to make the portrait of an individual. Somehow I found out that there is a big cultural difference on that matter. Maybe I have been in Germany for long time and then it is for me very important to deal with individual qualities. But Taiwan is a very collective society and pays less attention to individuality. Besides, the rights and the social codes of women and men are quite different. They are reflected in Xu Mingzhang’s attitude, his behavior, and his relationships with the other people (especially with women) as well. Someone mentioned: “I feel Xu Mingzhang is quite annoying”. I think one got the point. Because he was always taken care of by women: by his mother, by his ex-wife. Somehow, his ex-wife said: “I cannot do that anymore. Take care, bye-bye.” And he is totally lost.
I met some readers who would like to understand more this novel and some people, both male and female, told me they don’t understand this Taiwanese man and asked me why he never tried to do something. Well, because he never did many things on his own and has no idea how to start. I would say the question is about the expectation. If you don’t suppose he would be a hero character, but instead a very ordinary man, you can understand him better.
Talking about the waiting, this is a very authentic experience in Germany that you have to wait for a lot of things. You wish things could happen faster but it is impossible, especially when you are dealing with the bureaucratic system. So that is why even if Xu Mingzhang or the other immigrant family expects that things can happen quickly and as they wish, it does not happen this way, or it happens too little. In this novel I attempted to deliver the actual state of this endless waiting, wishing something would happen but not seeing anything happening.
When reading, we expect the three main characters to eventually cross paths in some more intimate way (there are many clues or hints that they would), but it does not happen or, if they finally do, it is out of the reach of the reader. What were you aiming at?
As what I’ve mentioned above, this is about expectation. What you expect out of a novel, and what you expect out of life. We talked about endless waiting, and some people cannot read about it much. Waiting is a very important part of one’s life but some readers may expect something to happen in a novel, they expect some certain story to be told. I don’t think there should be only one single way to write a novel. This is why I tried to change the structure and the texture of the Chinese language, this is the first stage of my experiment. And also this is why I tried to play with the structure of the novel in a way that the plot is not the most important thing. I introduced three groups of characters because I did not want this to be only about Taiwanese people. And this is not only about the life of immigrants in Germany, either. I wanted it to be about German people too. Even German people living in Germany have this inner feeling that they don’t know where they are and which decisions to make for their life. These are very significant characteristics in a modern society. In this novel many details in our everyday life have been described which relate to the detachment and isolation of human beings in modern societies.
In the first chapter, people in the Foreign Affairs office are considered as files; and that is their only meaning in a bureaucratic system. But people are not only numbers. Even for the civil servant, Ms. Meyer, these are files. But she did not care if these people are European, from Turkey, from Iran, from Taiwan, or from Korea. There is no difference. It is very questionable, very scary.
The second stage of the experiment in this novel is to use three groups of characters, and the reader can use three different perspectives to reveal the whole novel. By doing so, one will find something different than by just sticking to the point of view of the Taiwanese man.
Your main character reads books for a living but he does not seem to learn or to get much from this readings. And later on, the main occasion he has to really meet someone is brought by an installation displayed in the waiting room. Do you think the act of writing is fundamentally closer to creating an art work than to reading?
That is about how he treats books. To Xu Mingzhang, novels are little castles in the air where he can put himself in and escape from the reality. A lot of people read for that. They don’t expect to learn anything from reading. They just want to find a small corner to hide and they will feel comfortable, or feel that they are protected from the cruel reality. This is connected to Xu Mingzhang’s inability to reality. He has no clue about how to deal with everyday life. He does not have any will to make contact with people he doesn’t know. The only personal interactions are with Christian and Christina. They are totally different from Xu Mingzhang. They are open. This has a big impact on Xu Mingzhang. Meeting them provides him with a brand new range of possibilities.
The novel leaves a lot of things open to the imagination.
I did this very intentionally. I did not attempt to describe every single second of this story. In general, I keep some distance from conventional story telling. While writing a novel I concern more about the format, the style, the possibilities offered by language, the possibility of a new structure than about plots. The story will set up when you put the other things together appropriately. This is what writing a novel means to me.
I had been thinking if it should be a longer novel. If I were more mature, I could handle more characters in a novel and deliver more diversity in a global situation. (I have made it in my second novel.) I am originally from Taiwan, which does not mean I should write stories which just happened in Taiwan. This is not my reality. But I can offer another point of view looking at the contemporary, globalized community. I hope it could be interesting for more readers. This novel needs to be widely translated. A French reader living abroad and reading this novel in this French translation may understand it better than a Taiwanese reader because he or she shares certain similar experiences which are described in the novel. This novel is about a very universal phenomenon. The French translation is the first of its kind. I hope there will be more coming.
The French translation of this interview can be read here.