Delicious descriptions: Some thoughts on Ouyang Yu’s language

I didn’t get around, in my recent review of Ouyang Yu’s novel Diary of a naked official, to discussing his language, so couldn’t resist another post.

As you would expect in an erotic novel, particularly one framed as a diary, the language is rife with obvious – and consciously so on the part of our narrator – sexual references and innuendo. It is, to put it baldly, in your face. Yet there are, also, some subtle undercurrents. I’ve chosen one excerpt to illustrate some features of the language. Reading it will also give you a feeling for the tone, which is, among other things, conversational, self-confident and unashamed. At one point, Shi Ma (the narrator) describes his diary as “the only confessional” that he can have in a world where there are “no priests of any religious or religious denominations worth my trust and confidence”, but from my understanding of the word “confession” I’d read this as irony.

Names are an issue in the book – as you might expect in a diary. Shi Ma uses initials for most of the significant people in his life: W is Wife and D is Daughter, for example. The women he “loves” tend to be anonymous or go by aliases, which are often flower names, such as Acacia, Daffodil, Goldenrod and Nasturtium. Some characters though have more ordinary names. Consider this:

However passionate and deep one’s love is, it tends to peter out like a brisk fire that burns with passion and heat, only to burn itself out at the end of the day. Peter – what a name in association with the phrase ‘peter out’ – had an affair with Third, the third daughter in her family, a pretty girl who did frames for his paintings, but had to marry a Singaporean woman when he went to Sydney. Third fought tooth and claw to stop him from marrying and going. According to Sam, Third threatened suicide but didn’t; instead, she left scratch marks all over Peter’s back, traces of love when gone, turned sour and resentful.

Love seems to have two faces, one loving, the other hating. Sue is a typical example. Like the name ‘Peter’, this name is portentous. I would run miles away from any woman by that name because who knows if she is not going to Sue you one day? In fact, when a girl I loved reported that her name was ‘Sue’, I said: It’s not a name you should have. I’d much prefer you call yourself ‘Su’ or ‘Soo’. In fact, Soo with two holes in it is infinitely preferable to Sue with a ‘u’. She seemed to like it and said: I’ll think about it.

Besides including an example of the book’s sexually explicit language, this excerpt also addresses two of the novel’s concerns – love and power. Shi Ma discusses “love” endlessly, all the while behaving in an exploitative and generally loveless manner. He is obsessed with sex but desires love, and seems unable to reconcile the two in any meaningful way. Power, on the other hand – who has it, how it is used, what effect it can or does have – is one of the undercurrents of the novel. Ouyang Yu reveals a world in which power, particularly between the genders, is a complex business (with business being perhaps the operative word!) Women in his novel do wield some power, but whether that power is to their (or anyone’s) benefit is a question Yu leaves for the reader to consider.

Ouyang Yu, Diary of a naked official (Review)

Ouyang Yu, Diary of a Naked Official

Courtesy: Transit Lounge

When I was offered Chinese-born Australian writer Ouyang Yu’s latest novel Diary of a naked official to review, I was warned that it is rather graphic. And so it turned out to be, but, not having read Ouyang Yu before, I did want to give it a go. The accompanying publicity sheet describes it as “Ouyang Yu’s most commercial novel to date – erotic fiction set in contemporary China”. So now you, my blog readers, have also been warned.

Where to start? Perhaps with the title. Not being an expert on Chinese culture, I wouldn’t have fully understood the title if it hadn’t been for the back cover. It explains that “naked official” is a recognised term in China describing men who locate their wives and children overseas, where they also deposit all their money. The men remain in China “naked” and, in this case at least, “totally free” to indulge in whatever they desire – which brings me to the subject matter of this novel …

The main part of the novel comprises diary entries written by our naked official (who may be named Shi Ma and so that’s what I’ll call him) over a period of three months*. In it he details a life driven by satisfying carnal pleasures with no desire (ha) to rein them in. He is so focused on “enjoying” other women – young, beautiful ones – through pretty much any act you could imagine and then some, that he has no time or energy for intimacy with his wife, who does not move to Australia until halfway through the novel. “Sex”, he says early in his diary, is “a keyword of our times, it is like a poisoned liquid that seeps into the minds of everyone, including women”. (Including women, eh! How gender plays out in the novel, in fact, could occupy a whole post).

Framing the diary is the encompassing conceit that the story is presented to us by a writer, who is probably Chinese-Australian and who had found the diary on a USB stick left on a Melbourne train. He decides to present it in its entirety “with a bit of editing here and there, just to make it less offensive to the middle-class sensitivities in this country”. He warns his readers, just as I have, to be prepared for an assault on their “moral values”.

As you have probably gathered by now, this is a clever, complex and rather slippery book. I say slippery because it looks like it’s a critique (or satire) of modern China, of a world where obsession with sex and fast adoption of capitalism collide, and where increasing independence for women sees “concubine” become “working girl” with different expectations. But, when you comprehend that the character “publishing” this diary is based in Australia – and that writer-translator Ouyang Yu spends his life between Australia and China – you see that this is no simple tale. This is not to suggest that the book is autobiographical but rather that, through these layers, Yu plays with our minds, and forces us to recognise that Australia and China have more in common than we may think.

The layers are complicated further by the fact that Shi Ma himself works in a publishing house. His job is to recommend works to his boss, B, for publication. B, though, rarely agrees with him. Our narrator says:

But it is books that speak the honest truth to a hurting degree that are denied the chance of publication because the comfort zone is outstepped and our core values are challenged.

And so, Shi Ma, whose life of self-centred debauchery alienates us, also draws us in with his desire to publish difficult or confronting works. Publishing now, he says, “is dictated by MM, money and market through B, Banker of Books”. At one point, he considers whether a particular erotic book

might be considered for publication if not recommended outright. In today’s China, things are much more confronting, and much more physically permissive than a decade or so back as it is good for the economy … Still, I am not sure because B may object on the basis of market and censorship.

Censorship in China is one issue, but western readers are only too aware that publishing in so-called “free” countries is by no means free of the impact of the market. Shi Ma is pretty devastating in his comment on publishing:

In the scheme of things, an excellent book, by the time it is edited and published, becomes a good book, and a good book, a so-so book. It is amazing how a so-so book can sell, such as the one penned by the guy called Hung Heavens, but I have ceased to be amazed by the mediocrities as the world is made for them, books written by the mediocre for the mediocre, like common food, eaten only to be shat.

In another interesting layer, Shi Ma is given the job of assessing applications for “self-funded poetry”. Ouyang Yu, himself, is a poet and clearly knows only too well how difficult it is to get poetry published.

I have, I know, digressed somewhat, because the examination of publishing is only one aspect of this novel, and I probably haven’t given you much sense of its actual narrative. The novel does have a story, albeit a flimsy one based around sexual exploits. There are recurring characters, including the aforementioned B, a mother and daughter with whom Shi Ma has a complicated relationship, his friend Sam, and various working girls. However, while Shi Ma, himself, does develop to some degree – becoming “absolutely bored with a multitudinous accumulation of bodies” – none of the other characters are “developed” or even “rounded” in the usual way of fiction, because this is not a traditional novel. It is, rather, what I’d call an “ideas novel” that explores not only what is happening in modern China but also, more generally, what a sex-focussed, market-driven world looks like. And it ain’t pretty. Human relationships and original artistic expression are measured by money, and such values as love and morality are degraded in the wake.

Diary of a naked official is a book that shocks and appalls, but that can also surprise and even make us laugh. In it, Ouyang Yu, unlike B, is not afraid to expose “the night in our hearts”. Shi Ma is not a sympathetic character and yet, at times, he makes sense. There are no easy answers, and this book certainly doesn’t provide any. It does, however, ask some very pointed questions.

Ouyang Yu
Diary of a naked official
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN: 9781921924705

(Review copy supplied by Transit Lounge)

* In an interview I heard with Ouyang Yu, he pointed out that the diary starts on 4 June (the Tiananmen Square date) and ends on 11 September (9-11 in other words). More layers, you see …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Asian Australian writers

Brian Castro

Brian Castro (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Australia is an immigrant country, with the first immigrants, the original Aboriginal Australians, believed to have arrived 40-60,000 (there are arguments about this!) years ago via the Indonesian archipelago. They established what is now regarded as one of the longest surviving cultures on earth. Today, though, I’m going to write on some of our more recent immigrants – those from Asia. The first big wave of Asian immigrants came from China, during the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Since then people from all parts of Asia have, for various reasons, decided to call Australia home – and have enriched our culture immeasurably.

I’m not going to focus on the political issues regarding acceptance, promotion and encouragement of Asian Australian writers because, like any stories to do with immigration, it’s too complex for a quick post here. I hope that things are improving, but only the writers and communities themselves can really tell us that.

As has been my practice in these sorts of posts, I’m going to introduce 5 Asian Australian writers to get the discussion going. After that, I’d love you readers to share “immigrant” writers you know and love …

But first, a definition. My focus here will be on writers who emigrated from Asia, rather than those from subsequent generations. I will not therefore be discussing writers like Shaun Tan and Alice Pung.

Brian Castro (Hong Kong born in 1950, emigrated 1961)

Castro is one of the most prolific and most awarded writers among those I’m listing today. He came here as a child, and started writing short stories in 1970. He has, to date, published 9 novels, many of them winning major Australian literary awards. Lisa at ANZLitLovers suggests he is a contender for Australia’s next (should we ever have another one) Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1996, in the Australian Humanities Review, Castro said this about Australia and Asia:

The situation currently is that Australia needs Asia more than Asia needs it. While the West seems to have run out of ideas in the creative and cultural fields, relying on images of sex and violence, reviving old canons and dwindling to parody and satire in what can already be seen as one of the dead ends of postmodernism, the Asian region is alive with opportunities for a new hybridisation, a collective intermix and juxtaposition of styles and rituals which could change the focus and dynamics of Australian art, music and language.

Strong words – but they make you think! My sense is that Australia is now seeing (accepting?) some of this hybridisation that he speaks of – not only from Asia but also from our indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright. I wonder if Castro agrees?

Yasmine Gooneratne (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Gooneratne is one of the first Asian Australian writers I read. I have chosen her for that reason and for some sentimental reasons: she holds a Personal Chair in English at my alma mater, Macquarie University, and she is the patron of the Jane Austen Society of Australia! Long ago I read her first, appropriately named, novel, Change of skies (1991). Like many first novels, it has an autobiographical element and explores the challenges of changing skies, of migrating to another place. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. She has, in the last decade, received a number of awards here and in the South Asia region for her contribution to literature.

Michelle de Kretser (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Like Castro, de Kretser emigrated to Australia in her youth (when she was 14) and made quite a splash with her debut novel set during the French Revolution, The rose grower. Her second novel, The Hamilton case is set in Sri Lanka and represents she says her “considered” farewell to her country of birth. Her third novel, The lost dog, is set in her home-city (now) of Melbourne, but its main character migrated to Australia from Asia when he was 14 and struggles to find his identity. Her books are not self-consciously migrant but tend, nonetheless, to be informed by the experience of dislocation.

Nam Le (Vietnamese-born, emigrated 1979)

Nam Le is our youngest migrant in this list, arriving here when he was less than 1! His debut book, the short story collection, The boat (2008), won multiple awards and is remarkable for its diversity of content (setting and subject matter) and voice. I, like many others, am waiting to see what he produces next.

Ouyang Yu (Chinese born, emigrated 1991)

To my shame I hadn’t heard of Ouyang Yu until relatively recently, but I do have an excuse. He has only written three novels in English and two of them very recently: The eastern slope chronicle (2002), The English class (2010), and Loose: A Wild History (2011). He is, however, a prolific writer, of, apparently, 55 (yes, 55!) books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translated works in English and Chinese. He’s translated Christina Stead, no less, and even Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch. If this is not contributing to cross-cultural understanding I don’t know what is.

I’ll close with some words from an interview with Michelle de Kretser in which she articulates rather nicely I think the experience of being a migrant (using the character Tom from The lost dog):

But I think that like a lot of people who come to Australia, Tom is trying to escape something. You know, people come here often because they’re trying to get away from war, or poverty or persecution — or merely from perhaps difficult family situations. And I think Tom coming here as a child simply delights in the kind of freedom and anonymity that Australia offers him, which is a classic experience of people moving countries, or indeed if you go back to the 18th century people moving from the city to the country; the city at once offers this kind of blissful possibility of inventing yourself anew, a kind of wonderful freedom from inherited ways of thinking and being identified and categorised. On the other hand that is also simultaneously — can be — a very lonely and disconcerting experience, again.