China City Stories: an interview with Ra Page

Despite its rise China remains an enigma for many in the West. As fiction can provide a way to get under a culture’s skin—the short story doing so in immediate and concentrated fashion—we thought Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China sounded intriguing.

The anthology is an upcoming production of short story and poetry specialist, Comma Press. We’re delighted to have an exclusive interview with founder and managing editor, Ra Page. He talks to The Dabbler’s Daniel Kalder about how the the book came about, the seismic changes occurring in Chinese culture and why the short story is the perfect form for international fiction. You can learn more about Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China as well as order it here.

Daniel Kalder: Publishing short stories is widely regarded as commercial suicide in the UK, but your press has had success with a wide range of authors and themed anthologies from around the world. This is your first book of Chinese stories, what prompted you to try it now?

Ra Page: I’ve always been interested in the mobility of short stories—they translate very well, and can transcend (or enable the reader to transcend) all kinds of boundaries and borders. So translation has always been a big part of what Comma does. We started European translation projects in 2006, compiled a Middle Eastern anthology in 2008, and I’ve been wanting to ‘crack’ China from the start. I’ve always known about the strong contemporary science fiction scene there (although much of this is expressed through very long short stories—borderline novellas, really). And there was an interesting report commissioned by the Arts Council (‘Red—the New Black’ by Virgina Barry) in 2007 that gave a glimpse into the burgeoning fiction market and how it worked. So the will was always there.

The reality was only made possible however through a chance meeting with two Beijing-based visual art curators, Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu—both of whom have worked closely with Han Dong, a central figure in the ‘alternative’ Chinese literary scene. Meeting them suddenly made it all possible.

DK: You have an interesting mixture of authors in the anthology—some of them may not be well known to British readers but they are extremely famous and commercially successful in China; while others are critical hits if not (yet) big sellers. How did you go about tracking down the writers and persuading them to share their work with you?

RP: It’s all been on a one-to-one basis. I have difficulty working with third-parties—whether literary agencies here in the UK or indeed the Chinese Writers Association, out there. As a small publisher I have to have direct and unfettered contact with an author; I have to have their trust, and I need that our relationship to not be interfered with by an organisation or a company that has other agendas.

As to how I found the authors themselves, the whole book has been pieced together through a web of suggestions, recommendations, and lots of helpful translators and supporters, reading and recommending stories for us. A huge ‘Thank You’ needs to go out to people like Anna Holmwood, Sally Lai and Han Dong himself, for the help they’ve given us.

DK: Is the short story even a popular form in China? What will British readers get out of it?

RP: It is. There seems to be a great appetite for reading short stories in magazine form; genre writing is particularly buoyant, as well, and a lot of magazine editors are being pretty inventive with their commission briefs. One SF commission I heard about asked a host of leading authors to ‘destroy one city each’: writers were all appointed a city and had to go away and write a futuristic story in which the place got systematically annihilated. How cool is that?

I hope that these stories give British readers a glimpse into a completely new and unfamiliar culture going through some fairly seismic changes—but that they also enable readers to pick out experiences that aren’t actually so unfamiliar, after all. Sometimes the best way to describe something is, of course, to describe something else—either through metaphor, allegory, or just straight fiction. That’s what these stories do. They give us a snapshot of China at this very moment in time, by taking a side-step onto it. They freeze frame it for us, in high definition.

DK: Do you think you’d try something like this again?

RP: It’s been an exhausting process, but it’s always totally worth it. I’d love to work with some of the writers in this book, and translate whole collections by them. Not sure how, or if this is going to be possibly, but that’s my plan.

In terms of anthologies of city stories in translation in the future, I definitely want to keep doing this. Next stop? It has to be Africa!

DK: Is there a commercial/critical reason why you chose urban stories over rural stories, given that China has a massive rural population also?

RP: There are two very specific ‘critical’ reasons for this. The first is to do with the short story in general. I think, in its modern form, the short story is remarkably well suited to the urban landscape. It needs there to be lots of gaps in the backstory, and requires the main character to have a little bit of mystery or moral ambiguity to him or her. In this sense the the anonymity of the city is very well suited to the form. Also, short stories are, as a narrative form, all about opportunities—they’re little windows of time in which a character has a chance to change. In order to that, though, he or she has to be confronted by someone and something, and often the best examples of this come when the meeting is itself very arbitrary. Chance meetings are the stuff of city-based narratives, so again… the short story a very urban thing.

The other reason is that one of the key upheavals facing China at the moment is the urbanisation of rural populations. There has been a mass exodus of workers over the last few years to sustain the growth of manufacturing powerhouses like the cities along the Pearl River area. This has its effects, of course, back in the rural communities, but the conflict, the drama, the tensions that play out as a consequence are largely played out in the cities, with the arrival of uprooted peoples, and the culture clashes between the recently urbanised and the long-standing city dwellers.

DK: Thank you.

The Dabbler April 20, 2012

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