‘Litera-Chats with Jen’ is a series of interviews that I’ll doing with anyone who’s got the reading and/or writing itch. Down the line, some of my interviewees will be writers, established or budding alike, but for now most of them will just be friends and family, aka peeps who have enough love/tolerance/patience to put up with my cross-examining curveballs.
In my first ever ‘litera-chat’, I feature Brian Ng, a friend and fellow lit-lover who studies English Literature and Economics at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared on Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Business Insider, the Chicago Maroon, and the South China Morning Post.
Brian has an opinion about a lot of things. He dislikes how the word ‘liminal’ is used to death in undergraduate English papers; he despises the Swiss-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher-writer Alain de Botton whose “ideal audience”, he says, “is a UBS Managing Director who wants to convince his therapist that he’s interesting”, and he has very little time for the cultural philistinism that pervades Hong Kong, the city which both of us call home.
One thing’s for sure though: homeboy’s got mad love for literature, both the subject itself (poetry in particular) and the process of talking about it. This is why, despite Brian’s 12-hour jetlag, we still met up earlier this week to touch base on one of our favourite topics: the anxiety of being culturally unmoored, or the ambivalence of being – but not really feeling, like a Hong Konger most of the time. That, and all things lit-related, of course.
- Name: Brian Ng
- Place of origin: Hong Kong
- Current place of residence: Chicago, Illinois
- Degree major(s): English literature and economics
- Trademark: Facebook statuses that often mean everything and nothing to everyone all at once
- My favourite Brian quote: “Hemingway’s for high school boys who don’t outgrow that phase in college.”
- Would you rather… write flash fiction/erotic limericks?
“There was a bloke from London
Who sold second-hand condoms.
‘There’s seldom a tear,
And the fabric’s still clear,
So tell me how good you found ‘um.'”
Um, ’nuff said?
A) The personal stuff: from past to present
According to Alain de Botton, “reading is a response to anxiety, especially the type that is cultivated in childhood.” What do you make of this statement? Why do you read?
Let me get this down: Alain de Botton writes for airport terminals. Besides, that statement plagiarized Anna Freud in talking about how intellectualization, which has really driven the history of psychoanalysis, was itself a defense mechanism, a compulsion most familiar to teenage types.
But anyways, I feel like de Botton is criticizing the sort of ‘I’ve got the whole world figured out’ mentality so prevalent in fans of Ayn Rand and Richard Dawkins. Growing up, as a child constantly in the presence of parental chaos – who isn’t? – I think I read to diffuse my sense of parental anxiety, and by relying on books, I could often withdraw into an intellectual structure as solace. But my parents also really encouraged my reading habit, so in a paradoxical way I was resisting authority by toeing the line.
I also read to be good.
What do you mean by that?
Reading is necessarily tied to judgment – specifically, the question of taste. To be a discerning reader is to be ‘better’ person, and it seems that the more one reads ‘good’ literature, the more one internalizes a cultural rubric that sets apart the intellectual few and the not-so-intellectual many, a reinforcement of Marcuse’s idea of a nostalgic two-dimensional society. Also known generally as the attitude of, “I’ve read Marcuse, so I’m better than you.”
What is Hong Kong’s cultural rubric?
In terms of English reading or writing, I don’t really think Hong Kong has one. I can’t speak for the Chinese cultural rubric because I don’t know it, but there isn’t really an tradition of English literature – unlike, say, in India or Singapore. It all boils down to how much literary passion is encouraged: here, you’re supposed to drop it right before you enter college; in America, it seems that most people drop it right after they leave college.
Still those four extra years, let’s say a fifth of your lifespan at 21 years, are significant in that they cultivate a lifelong appreciation of reading. But there’s no denying that both cultures care most about ‘making good use of time’, and to that end, literature is only useful to a certain point, after which it becomes glaringly emblematic of inefficiency.
How would you compare your experience as a high school student in Hong Kong with that as an undergraduate at UChicago?
I definitely feel more understood at UChicago. Back when I was studying at a local school in Hong Kong, I was often overcome by a kind of inexplicable sadness, and thinking in a proto-critical manner became my salve and salvo. Honestly, my impression is that a lot of Hong Kongers conduct various forms of self-examination on a regular basis – who doesn’t? – but they rarely tend toward deeper spiritual improvement. There just isn’t much time or institutional support.
B) The cultural stuff: from east to west and back again
As an international student of literature, how do you relate or react to the more specific cultural allusions in the ‘Great American canon’?
I think that writing responsibly in any language is about reacting to a structure. What can one manage to escape from, or get away with saying? In that sense, more complex or spacious structures are more rewarding. There was a conscious moment in college when I elected to engage with an American canon, even though to that point I had lived my entire life in Hong Kong. I needed to find an idiom that could strengthen me, allow myself to be subjective and visible.
Even when cultural signifiers remain foreign in substance – reading DeLillo when I couldn’t care less about American football, for instance – there are certain ideas of style and graphs of references that are available by way of the aesthetic. A very dear teacher, Rosanna Warren, once told me that my poetry held the aesthetic nature of teasing out assonances within a foreign language, which has always seemed a limiting compliment. This might be more possible in the American canon than the English one in general though, I guess, in the former’s claim to universality.
Would you rather read Chinese literature in English or English literature in Chinese?
Chinese literature in English, just because I know the English literary canon a lot better. Someone, I think Michael Hoffmann, said that by embracing a foreign language canon, one may be saved from his native contemporaries, which is very much the case for me. I’ve tried, with no claim to seriousness or accuracy, several times to translate literary texts into English to approach a sense of how the language works.
I recently wrote a 3-part poem titled ‘Civic Patience’, which was a commentary on the Umbrella Movement back in October 2014. Part of the last section was a translation of one poem in the Book of Odes (詩經), the oldest selection of Chinese poetry in existence, titled <月出>. It’s part of the “Airs,” where repetitive lyrical dioramas of domestic life were noted down to capture the “national character” of each state. The whole text is three stanzas, and, for the transcript, I reference a literal translation by Martin Kern, a sinologist at Princeton:
The key of the poem lies between the 1st-3rd and fourth lines of each stanza, the tension between – to raise the example of the first stanza – chaste brightness (“皎”), beauty (“佼”), ease (“舒”) etc. playing against the speaker’s toil (“勞”) and anxiety (“悄”). This can only be explained by clues within the first three lines, “adorable” (“僚”) which, in the Chinese character’s root in combustive fuel, suggests the moon has disturbed the speaker’s affect, and “allure” (“糾”) that suggests that the lover has engendered some conflict within the speaker. This set of relations repeats throughout the three stanzas until tacit anxiety (“悄”) is intensified into abjection (“慘”). One classical reading has been that the speaker is satirizing tyranny, implying that their statesman has permitted his romantic and natural appetites to overwhelm his desire to lead.
I know very little about the historical aspects of classical Chinese poetry, but I wanted very much to preserve an example of how clarity of consciousness – which in many ways arrives through sexual encounter, or otherwise violence towards the world – is at its core troubling and jealous. I here include my English-language rewrite, which emphasizes its agonistic aspect, but hopelessly discards the internal rhyme and scansion, and all the things that make the original so scarily simple:
“The moon burnishes my companion’s beauty
That beguiles me, and ruminates upon my heart.
The moon honors my companion’s charms
That vex me, and stir my heart.
The moon exposes my companion’s brilliance
That lightens me, and wracks my heart.”
I think this illustrates the limitations of criticism, the English language, and me as a poet: the inaccessibility of certain modes of scansion. For example, no English poet can trump Dante at the terza rima, mostly because the Italian language lends itself better to rhyme. On the other hand, Chinese poetry is best at imagistic condensation, as the ideographic nature of Chinese enables each character to pack in a wealth of meaning. It’s hard to pull off a dimeter without seeming overtly comic, although Wordsworth and Beckett tried, and “The Moon Comes Out” suggests how much easier it can be in Chinese.
I’ve recently been looking into the intersections between Western and Chinese pastoral poetry. How do you think the two types compare?
I usually think back to William Empson’s vision of the pastoral – “putting the complex in the simple,” mixing social and linguistic hierarchies – and his interpretation of Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard as a quietist political response about the meritocracy, something that the Chinese understood better than British literary critics. The Chinese understood that hermeneutics was a protection from impeachment. Empson, after all, spent some years traipsing through run-down schools in China reciting Paradise Lost to refugees before World War II.
But nature itself, especially through a romantic lens, has always been a prime candidate for poets to examine life and existence, both Western and Chinese alike. What interests me most though, is how American scholars like Gary Snyder tend to hold a pastoral poet like Wang Wei – esteemed but not centrally canonical in Chinese poetry, in higher regard than say Li Bai or Du Fu, whose oeuvres are arguably more respected by Chinese readers in general. To me, this shows a tendency on Western academia’s part to ‘lyricise’ Chinese poetry into being mostly about nature, which could be seen as falling back on a kind of reductive exoticism.
C) Would you rather…: asking the hard questions
…drop English literature or Economics?
(A long pause sets in, and Brian doesn’t really ‘do’ pauses)
It’s a hard question. If I could only pick one, I would probably have opted for something else entirely, like computer science.
Why Comp Sci?
It’s quite similar to literature, in that both subjects write texts. Algorithms are like sentences, and both create by ‘concealing’ different valences in either verbalized thoughts or rigorous logical structures. Although the beauty in computer science is made impure by programming, or software development, like literary thought is made impure by journalism or technical writing. But it’s very attractive, is it not, to be saving something from impurity and arbitrary complication?
Or maybe math; algebra is all about being clear and rigorous while engaging in the convolutions of analogy and metaphor, in providing tropic movement before movement. But I never really had the concentration or intelligence for serious study –even my literary training is full of holes, but you simply can’t survive seriously in a scientific discipline if you don’t have, well, the discipline. And to reference mathematical matters in literary writing would be disgustingly indulgent, or badly aping Borges and the Oulipo.
…read contemporary American or British fiction?
American fiction, but that’s maybe just a function of not reading that much fiction. I’m just not terribly familiar with the contemporary fiction landscape, because I usually read poetry. It’s more diverse; there’s more ‘people’ in the field, there’s more capital involved. I do like Will Self though, also John Banville and Colm Tóibín. Salman Rushdie annoys me, and the fact that he was issued a fatwa only intensifies my animosity towards him – he was getting literary attention for what is basically a non-diegetic factor.
On the American side, Jonathan Franzen is, I believe, a bit overrated, someone who plays the part of the public conscience while touting his brand of self-alliance politics. Having said that, I think that his novel Freedom was quite good, a real social novel.
Then there’s David Foster Wallace, who has been canonized an American saint for embodying the Romantic myth of the tortured genius out of bashing irony as what sucks the life out of literature. I can’t buckle down to read Infinite Jest, but I’ve hate-read pretty much half of all his short stories and essays, and watched The End of the Tour just yesterday on my flight back from Chicago. That movie is all about retaining judgments of people despite how they act, so it’s troubled me with the judgments I myself have retained. Ben Lerner comes out of that academic mode too, that trouble about living as a successful fraud, and his poetry is very technically aware.
But, as we’ve previously agreed, Updike is a tremendous stylist, Pynchon is voluminous and amazing, Roth is treacherously hilarious, et cetera et cetera
…read poetry or prose?
Poetry. I’m very ADHD, which is why the idea of getting bogged down by narrative and characterisation doesn’t much appeal to me. I just don’t remember plotlines very well. Verse, on the other hand, is like a spectator sport that I can partake in within fully engaging with the details. I can replay and localize trophic moments without needing to move characters from one room to another.
It’s also interesting that Updike and Nabokov, both stylistic masters of prose, turned out to be such terrible poets. My theory is that neither of them ‘gets’ music. After all, Nabokov was famously tone-deaf. But yes, I’m a reader who needs to be stimulated all the time. Being without my internal monologue is scary, and poetry allows me to build a language via an internal truth, which I’m constantly feeling ‘towards’ but have yet to reach. But isn’t reaching for it kind of the point?
OK, here’s a fun final question: If you had to bitch about one writer or type of writing, who/what would it be?
Actually, a hard question. Um… someone like Tao Lin, I guess. Net lit? Not because of the internet, which I indulge in, but because their personae are so irresponsible and their ambitions limited. Or maybe the Beats. Or Sylvia Plath? ‘Daddy’ is overrated, all blood and Nazis, and Anne Sexton does better what she does, but this might be a gendered response, or not knowing her well enough.
But in terms of what I’m wary of in literature, I’d say sentimentalism, which must always be in tension with something and put in perspective. Otherwise, clichés invade and spoil the work.