Sabrina Huang: “My works are like doll’s houses”

Sabrina Huang. (Courtesy of Sabrina Huang)

Interview by Pierre-Yves Baubry for Lettres de Taïwan.

Do French people taste food samples ahead of a wedding? How did the translator translate the names of the many dishes featured in this short story? Sabrina Huang [黃麗群] had many questions when we met in a Taipei small neighborhood coffee shop, on a Saturday morning right after the 2018 Lunar New Year. I had a few as well, as the Taiwanese writer is featured in Nouvelles de Taïwan, a collection of short stories from Taiwan translated into French and published this month by French publishing house Magellan & Cie..

After reading your short story “Food Tasting” (試菜), one is impressed by the strong realism in your writing, starting with the abundance of food, the description of Taiwan’s rich gastronomy, as well as the way characters behave or talk to each other. You also pay much attention to bodies shapes and to the way garments fit, for example. Is it essential for you to have your writing grounded into reality?

I guess there are two different reasons to that. On one hand, as a female in the society, the body image is a subject that is constantly haunting you. Since you are maybe 2 year old, you get this idea that the whole society and environment would input certain concerns into you. Most of women care about body image, about the way they present themselves in front of other people. I didn’t write about these topics consciously. It is something deeply rooted in you that emerges into the story.

On the other hand, I grew up in two different eras. Before I joined college, there was no Internet. Everything was so physical. You mostly had to meet people to talk to them – even if you did not meet them, you had to listen to them or to write to them using paper and pen. Everything was so material, so solid. After my college, starting in the 1990s, after the Internet came to the scene, everything turned totally different. We now don’t do things physical at all. We connect to people with digits. I get used to it so well, as I am not a person who enjoys the crowd.

I really enjoy the convenience Internet brought to us but in the recent years, I have been looking for experiences that cannot be replaced by all this technology, like tasting or smelling. You can wear VR glasses but you cannot fully experience being in a Paris street. You cannot feel the vibe, smell the smell. That is something I really pay attention to: is there something that cannot be replaced? Of course I can imagine that in a not so near future you won’t have to taste or to smell to get these feelings. At this moment at least, I try to pay more attention to our physical existence.

In my book Welcome to the Doll’s House (Chinese title: 海邊的房間, Unitas Publishing, 2012), I have another story about body, “A Room by the Sea” (海邊的房間). This story is about taking possession of someone’s body through acupuncture. It is funny you brought this subject because I never saw myself writing this way…

 

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« Nouvelles de Taïwan » is a collection of six short stories from Taiwan translated into French and published by French publisher Magellan & Co.

In “Food Tasting”, you also mention traditions that may have become out of date, for example that of the father’s ritually beating a son’s coffin to punish him for being unfilial by dying before his parents; or even wedding banquets which are quite forgettable events in your story. Is this for you a way to criticize these traditions in the context of a fast evolving society?

I have always been interested in traditional culture, including Taiwanese traditions from Chinese heritage – apparently we do have a Chinese heritage, right? – and I wrote different stories on this topic. For example, I wrote a story about the fate of a traditional Taiwanese fortune teller, and I also wrote about acupuncture or about paper houses traditionally burnt at funerals.

I don’t think traditions in Taiwan were much affected by modern technologies, because these customs are deeply rooted in our mindset and not that easy to change, contrary to living habits. In Taiwan, traditions are still very alive. And I think that is something that separate us Taiwanese writers from other cultures – the way we see it, the way we describe it, the way we perceive it: there is something different, even from Chinese writers. Maybe their society has similar features but I guess the way they describe or perceive them is totally different. To describe something that is in our blood, in our life, and in our heritage with our own terms, sounds, and atmosphere – I would say our own language – is what makes it different.

I do try to put some historical or traditional factors in my story, but it is also about my personal taste: I have this fetish for strangeness and superstition.

In some other stories, such as “Founding a Family” (成家), the boundary between realism and strangeness is quite blur. You are even sometimes close to a kind of fantastic.

Yes, at the edge of craziness (laughters).

Are realism and strangeness two separate trends for you?

No, they are not. They all merge together. For me, the real world, the daily life isn’t that normal. There is always a twist, maybe such as in the parallel universe theory. In my mind, reality and so-called peaceful daily life can be turned into a breaking point. I am never so sure about real life, about whether things will stay put. I always worry that in a sudden moment, everything will reach the edge of craziness. I never take this world for granted.

Would you call that insecurity?

Definitely. I always have this uncertain feeling about life. For the past few years, I have been leading a very quiet and peaceful life but there is always this idea in my mind that something weird and crazy is gonna come over and hit me at some point.

This may be due to everything going faster around us. When we were younger, there were not so many breaking news everyday. One could read only the newspaper in the morning. A that time in Taiwan, there were no 24-hour cable TV news channels, and one got to watch news only twice or three times a day, each time for about half hour. Nowadays, you can not get away from breaking news. You will get notifications on your phone, unless you turned them off – which I did. This certainly affected the way I see the world. So unstable. I think this feeling that the world can be turned over at any moment does affect the mentality of my works.

I am reluctant to systematically read stories from Taiwan under the geopolitical angle, but is the uncertainty you describe somehow connected to the situation of Taiwan on the international stage?

Of course. That is a good angle, and that is exactly what I think when I read works of Taiwanese writers and compare them to works by Chinese writers of the same generation. It is clear to me that Taiwanese writers share a same kind of uncertainty. For example, a friend of mine from China recently visited Taiwan and talked to me about how her friends in Shanghai are disappointed with Taiwanese young people focusing on happy little moments in life (小確幸, xiaoquexing). Living in some of the biggest cities in the world, these Chinese friends don’t understand the whole uncertainty hanging over this island.

In China, uncertainty exists at a personal level where one does keep a certain control in one’s hands. But during the past 200 years, Taiwanese have constantly faced situations of being turned over, again and again. When Japan took over Taiwan from the Qing dynasty, habits and language were turned upside down. After 50 years, the KMT came and turned everything upside down again. After three or four decades of KMT rule, the DPP have brought to the society a lot of different ideologies and concepts as well.

This has formed the mentality of Taiwan. People don’t want to make long term plans. While doing business, they just want to make quick money and then emigrate to an other place. Because this island does not bring the feeling of being safe. We don’t have a safe and sure country. We can’t even claim ourselves a country.

Two years ago, with five other Taiwanese writers, we were invited to Shanghai and met with Chinese counterparts. During that meeting, a Chinese writer told us that when reading our works, she felt that, maybe because we live on a small island, we were so self-trapped. I answered that we are not self-trapped but trapped by the environment – by China.

Sabrina Huang. (Courtesy of Sabrina Huang)

Many readers told me that in my works, they get this feeling of being trapped – in a body, in a situation, in a compulsive obsession.

Taiwanese people are not less ambitious than others, they are just trapped in certain situations. But I would add that more and more young people here try to do things they like and that are meaningful, even if at a small scale.

We have big corporations in Taiwan such as Hon Hai (Foxconn), but I don’t sense they have a strong connexion with their own country, Taiwan. Of course, they are international corporations but you can sense that they will send their children in America – they are sending them there. On the contrary, maybe unconsciously, the younger generation and their small businesses have a much stronger connexion with Taiwan. They do feel that this place is home.

My parents are so-called waishengren (外省人). My father and my mother came to Taiwan when they were very young, about one year old, as my grandparents followed the Kuomintang (KMT) to Taiwan. Until today, my mum does not think she is Taiwanese, even if she has basically stayed her whole life here. She doesn’t see herself as a Taiwanese – she will see herself as Chinese and Taiwanese. For us, this is unimaginable. I am sure immigrants to the USA would definitely see themselves as Americans, regardless where they came from. But strangely – not so strangely as it was what the KMT was aiming at – this is not the case in Taiwan.

I don’t think writers of the previous generation had this feeling of being trapped because they grew up in a very optimistic era of economic boom and development of cross-strait ties. They didn’t doubt. Writers of the younger generation have a much stronger Taiwanese identity. They don’t hesitate, they don’t doubt either. But writers of my generation were educated as Chinese while developing strong ties with our own soil, Taiwan. History has taught us that things are not always on the right tracks. We do have this uncertainty feeling and there is nothing you can do about it.

In some of your short stories, dreams seem to be a way to escape such situations, and at same time they appear to be what keeps life from falling apart…

I assume you can’t live without dreaming but you can’t make your whole life depend on dreams. The ones with dreamless sleep must be living a very pathetic and dull life.

I’m always having these kinds of strange dreams. People say that when you dream, your soul is going to some other dimension. I don’t know where my dreams come from. I don’t think some informations they contain are anywhere in my brain. I do enjoy dreaming though.

Your book A Room by the Sea is named in Chinese after one of the short stories of the collection. But the English translation’s title is Welcome to the Doll’s House, which evokes by the way the play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Why this title?

Oh no, there is no connection with Henrik Ibsen. Having this English title is my choice. After graduating from college, I worked as an editor for a very long time – for about 10 years. Later on, when I was discussing this collection with my editor, I wasn’t in a writer’s position, I was mostly in another editor’s position. “A Room by the Sea” was my most renowned work at the time among mandarin readers, which made it the best choice for the collection’s title – a very practical reason. But when it came to the English title, “A Room by the Sea” was too subtle, too quiet a title, maybe reminding the paintings of Edward Hopper. The image was too peaceful in a way.

When I think of a collection of works of mine, I tend to think of doll’s houses. I am a huge fan of doll’s houses. I always picture a short story as a small doll’s house: very limited in size but where you can create something using your imagination and in a very meticulous way. Short stories are limited in length, so you have to make everything precise, just like with a doll’s house. I have many different doll’s houses, with different furniture, sometimes I would play, making a lonely dinner table for a lonely old man living by himself, or a scene for a birthday party with lots of kids and pets. You can live all kinds of little lives in these tiny objects. Every piece of my work is like a little doll’s house.

The cover of the original Taiwan edition of 海邊的房間.

Were you also involved in the design of the cover of the original Taiwanese edition?

Yes. Of course it was not designed by myself. The publisher hired a designer who gave us four different layouts that we narrowed down to the last one with this open window. At the beginning, the color of the sea was kind of purple so we did some adjustment. At the end, we settled for a darker version.

It seems you often refer to Buddhism in your work. In “Food Tasting”, for example, you play with two scriptures – the camel in the eye of a needle (from the Bible) and the blind turtle in the hole of a cattle-yoke (from a Buddhist sutra)…

Right, this Buddhist sutra describes how rare and difficult it is to become a human being. You know that Buddhists believe in reincarnation so we are never sure whether in our next life we won’t be just a cockroach.

Referring to Buddhism is something quite natural, as Taiwan is a very religious place. People go to temples all the time here. And I always tell my family I am a superstitious woman (laughters), just like a countryside obasan. In Taiwan, the influence of the religion goes very deep in our society.

On the other hand, I do enjoy reading Buddhist classics. There are two reasons for that. First, I have a personal interest in Buddhism. Second, Buddhism classics got translated from India into Chinese a very long time ago, in particular during the Tang dynasty. And they were translated so beautifully. It is one of the best forms of classical Chinese. As a writer, reading them is a good training.

In junior high school, I attended a Christian boarding school in Taipei’s Shilin district, so we had Bible lessons every week and I did enjoy the reading although I am more versed into Buddhism. One thing is that the Chinese version of the Bible is also very well translated, using classic and elegant words. As a person who always had a very strong connection with words, I did enjoy that.

In interviews you gave to Taiwanese medias, you mentioned that reading is a process of accumulation and that you could not name a decisive influence by any writer or literary work. Nevertheless, you mentioned various Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese writers you enjoy reading, including Kan Yao-ming (甘耀明) who is also featured in this collection of short stories. You may not be directly influenced by these writers but who are those you enjoy reading?

I certainly mentioned Wang Ting kuo (王定國), Lin Chun-ying (林俊穎) and Kan Yao-ming as some of the major contemporary Taiwanese writers. I also read Japanese writers.

There is one funny thing about Taiwanese readers. One day I was texting my friend, I realized all of a sudden that I had on my phone an English input tool, a Japanese one (because sometimes I do some research in Japanese), and of course a traditional Chinese input tool (zhuyin) and a simplified Chinese input tool (based on hanyu pinyin) to communicate with friends in China. That is like a metaphor of the Taiwanese fate. We are probably the only country in the world who has all these kinds of input tools in our phones, due to the many influences that shaped us.

I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of Western works. You may have noticed that my works have a certain level of difficulty, using a lot of traditional concepts and vocabulary which can make their translation quite challenging. Chinese language is very strange. Every character has its own meaning, and its shape will trigger a certain image. The way characters look, the way they sound and the way they are assembled bring all kinds of connections in your head. I play a lot of such tricks in my writing, which you can only do in Chinese language. For example, I would make sentences look like traditional Chinese poems or verses, which is untranslatable. That is why I read Western languages less because I am still very interested in learning and developing the form of the language I write.

I read a lot Chinese classics and verses. I do also like reading Japanese writers, maybe because of my own compulsive obsession. I read them in Chinese translation. They put a lot of attention on details, in a very sensitive way. The whole Japanese culture is so ridiculously sensitive, which may not be a good thing for daily life but when it comes to reading, one really enjoys how these writers put a lot of efforts in describing details.

In your early works, you used the pen name 九九 (Jiu Jiu). Why did you then switch  to your original name?

This pen name wasn’t really a pen name. It was an Internet handle I was using when I was younger, and which was very easy to type. I kept using it for a while, as I don’t really like to expose my work in front of my family. Not that I am ashamed of it, but families can be very nosy sometimes. I don’t want something I do to become some talking topic. So I tended to disguise the things I did under this handle.

But after 10 years or so, I guess I got mentally ready to accept the fact that if they want to be nosy, just let them be. Also, a fortune teller told me the number of strokes in 九九 (Jiu Jiu) was not very favorable, while the number of strokes  in my real name was better. Using my real name is also more convenient in many aspects, including signing rights contracts, etc. And I added my English first name Sabrina because I thought it would make  it easier for internet users to search my blog – this is again a very practical reason.

You mostly write short pieces. Do you think short stories are an essential part of Taiwanese literature?

There is a major influence of the literary awards system. Taiwan has a long history of major literary awards, often organized by newspapers. Newspapers could not really bear huge works, so they tended to focus on shorter pieces. They used to have a category for novellas (中篇小說, zhongpian xiaoshuo) but as time goes, formats got shorter and shorter.

On the other hand, there is also this ideology that every good writer has to write some longer novel. Taiwan’s ministry of Culture sponsors projects for longer novels, which makes a lot of writers are now investing time into novels.

People often ask me whether I am going to write a longer novel. I would say I am not a marathon type of writer, more like a 100-meter type. If you just want quantity, you can always write hundreds of thousands Chinese characters of garbage.

It seems the demand for longer works may also come from foreign publishers, who tend to think their national audiences do not like reading short stories…

I do read novels but it was never my only focus. I have always enjoyed reading short stories collections, and major publishing houses in Taiwan also publish yearly selections. Isn’t it so stressful to read a novel? If you read a short stories collection, you can jump from one story to another very quickly.

How would you describe to a French audience the state of Taiwanese literature?

I think there is a good way to give a rough idea about Taiwanese literature. Taiwan is probably the one and only place that got equally deeply influenced by three major cultures in this world: Japanese culture, American culture, and of course Chinese culture. These three major cultures were all poured into this island, and I think writers nowadays, those of my generation and those of the new generation, have already found a way to cope with these three different influences.

Among the younger generation of Taiwanese writers who are now in their 20s or 30s, you can see a very strange but also very well arranged combination of these three major cultures. We try to sing to our own tune.

The preparation of this interview benefited from insights by Coraline Jortay who translated Sabrina Huang’s short story featured in Nouvelles de Taïwan.

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