Interview by Magdalena Ball
Tell me about the origins of On the Smell of an Oily Rag. How did the book come about?
The book began as early as 1998 or earlier, in the form of diary-entry-like fragments, disparate and unrelated, but always dated. I spent much of my Peking University residence (September to December 1999), funded by the Asialink residence program, working on the book, then slowly taking shape.
Were the essays written for the book as a group, or did you write them as individual pieces, designed to stand alone?
As the fragments accumulated, certain patterns appeared, which I subsequently grouped under different headings.
Do you feel that there’s an overall conclusion that the book presents – eg some overview that comes out of the observations?
The conclusion, if any, came late, very very late, near the end, but as time went by, it turned out that each heading acted as a kind of conclusion in itself, not the ones in the published book, but the ones that were not included in the editing process. In fact, the editing did away with much that I cherished, a fact that I have now grown increasingly resigned to.
Did you begin with a hypothesis about the relationship between English or Chinese, or did your perceptions about the connections, similarities and differences between the two languages change as you began to explore it.
‘Hypothesis’? Sounds very English or Western to me. It’s nothing if not organic. The whole thing is an organic growth out of my combination of daily literary activities, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, literary translation and literary magazine editing, in both languages, a growth bit by organic bit, and by fits and starts.
Talk to me a bit about the biji xiaoshuo (pen-notes fiction) genre that the book was written in. What made you choose this style?
I think I’ve given it quite a lot of explanation in my preface to the book. Other than that, I can’t say any more except that people should perhaps start thinking of learning the Chinese language if they really want to know something that is fascinating in another language that they themselves have the least idea about. One highly recommended book of pen-notes fiction is, of course, yuewei caotang biji, by Ji Yun. To read it in the original is to appreciate all the beauty of it. I, for one, read all the English novels in my early days when I had this craze for them, thus knowing what I had wanted to know. As for why I chose the style, it was as unexplainable as why a seed took roots in a particular patch of the soil and grew into a tree or a flower but part of the reason is really my disgust with the books published here and elsewhere, big chunks of stuff that I had little patience for while things could be done in fragments that are much more meaningful. It’s what the pace of life demands of us, too.
The book has been out for a few years now. Have you been pleased with its reception?
No idea how it was received. Can’t be bothered. Did hear from someone that at one particular university the book was so thumbed that it was nearly worn down to a pulp. That pleased me.
There’s quite a lot of sometimes ribald humour throughout the book and much of your other work as well, though it’s subtle at time. But you’re often referred to as the “angry Chinese poet”. Do you feel that your reviewers tend to miss (or misconstrue) the funny in your work?
The epithet ‘angry’ is so passé that the mere mention of it brings a smile to my lips. I haven’t seen anyone that is not angry at times nor have I seen anyone that is always angry. Putting a label on a live person is treating the person as a commodity, not a real human being. It tells more about the labeller and the user of the label than the labelled. On the other hand, if I deny that I sometimes am angry it sounds like Australia saying it is not a racist country because it is but labelling Australia as a racist country is like labelling me as an angry poet. Plain wrong and plain simplistic.
You haven’t hesitated to call attention to Australia’s many flaws and failings, and of course On the Smell of an Oily Rag is no exception, but there’s also much in Australia that you look on dotingly, and note the many connections between both languages. Do you also love Australia in a way that might mirror your feelings towards your first country?
I have always loved Australia, exactly why I still stay here and probably will be for the rest of my life and death. It’s a sad thing if a writer ceases to see ‘flaws and failings’ of a place where he ties his life, and, I mean, why do we always expect our writers to sing praise of something that sometimes is far from being praiseworthy? The very fact that a writer is expected to be nice suggests that he or she is treated as an outsider because he or she has no right to do so except to curry favour with, or lick the arse of, something that stinks. No. A writer must say no to anything that smells.
You’re a man who works across many genres. Does one genre appeal to you more than others? Eg would you call yourself a poet before a fiction writer, or are those distinctions unimportant?
I am not in the habit of putting myself in a box or pigeon hole. It’s up to academics or others to do so. I might as well call myself a poetnovelisttranslatoressayistcritic or criticessayisttranslatornovelistpoet. What does it matter what I do or call myself as long as I engage in creative business?
Talk to me about some of the work that you have in the pipeline.
Two novels are forthcoming, one, The English Class, out in August this year, with Transit Lounge, and the other, Loose: A Wild History, to be out shortly after that, with Wakefield Press. Otherwise, there are two new books of translation in Chinese out shortly in China and three reprints of my translation, also to be out later this year, they being The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman and The Shock of the New.
Read our review of On the Smell Of An Oily Rag here.
About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.