Kaitlin Solimine, Empire of Glass, Ig Publishing, 2017. 297 pgs.
When Wang Guanmiao, future husband of Huang Li-ming, goes to her father to ask for her hand in marriage, he is turned down. Li-ming has already been promised to someone else, the boorish “Athlete of the Year,” Wu Wei, whom Wang despises. Li-ming’s father, Huang Daozhen, explains that it is a political marriage, so Wang shouldn’t feel too bad: “I can only do what the Party thinks is right for her.” As Wang walks away, defeated, Huang calls after him:
“Remember what Marx and Chairman Mao say about knowledge!” Huang shouted to Wang’s shadow. “True knowledge begins only with revolutionary practice! Don’t forget that more than mere thought is valued here!”
Later in her life, Li-ming sends a number of letters to her friend Kang-lin, a former classmate who went through many of the same travails as Li-ming. She was also persecuted for lack of proper revolutionary credentials and needed to hide both her intellectual curiosity, as well as her personal eccentricities from those around her—lest they consider her counter-revolutionary, or a black hand of capitalism. In one of these letters, we see that Li-ming has internalised the criticisms against her:
Poetry is written by pigs and capitalists who think art will feed people. Art cannot feed people. It will only make them starve. Poetry is art. Poetry will kill people. The People will revolt. The people will win.
I am Huang Li-ming, named for the National Liberation. I am a child of cockroaches. I am repentant. I will burn the books. I will chew the pages because this is all I will eat for weeks. I will not starve because words cannot feed me. Only the People and the Party will feed me.
Lao K, an American, was a teenager when she went to stay with a host family in Beijing, the home of Wang Guanmiao and Huang Li-ming. She is the translator of Empire of Glass, a book written by Huang Li-ming, which she discovers when she returns to Beijing two decades after her homestay, for Li-ming’s memorial. In her translation, she writes herself into the story in the form of footnotes which perform the role of parenthetical, commentary and parallel text:
Now I find myself wanting to believe history is capable of being erased, that by the simple act of translation we can rewrite entire narratives of time and injustice. As in Valéry translating Virgil: “At moments, I caught myself wanting to change something in the venerable text …”
Kaitlin Solimine, the actual author of Empire of Glass, is superficially similar to Lao K. She studied in Beijing as a teenager and stayed with a host family. But she is also the other characters as she has imagined them, possibly as they should have been: resilient, opaque, curious. One curious character, or at least figure or trope, in the novel is Han Shan, the unpopular Tang dynasty poet popularised through several English translations. Han Shan is frequently alluded to by the novel’s characters as a source of wisdom. Yet he disavows wisdom, and his status in the novel is odd—how many people in China read Han Shan? Not many.
By quoting Han Shan’s verse to us, often in Lao K’s footnoted commentary, we are reading not only the translation of a supposedly Chinese text (Huang Li-ming’s story) into English, but the translation of an English text (well-selling, revered translations of Han Shan) back into Chinese culture. There is nothing duplicitous about it. It casts characters’ (Li Huang-ming’s and Kang-lin’s) unlikely interest in Han Shan as it, perhaps, would have been—had not history determined their lives otherwise. That Wang Guanmiao and others show no interest in Han Shan is, perhaps, the other end of the dialectical process: they act as raw material contrasted to Han Shan’s ideal.
Which brings me back to the dialectical quotation I began with. If revolutionary practice is the beginning of revolutionary thought, then perhaps it is Valéry’s revision—Solimine’s revision—that brings light to the injustices of history. Translation, in such a case, is, however imagined, a practice of recasting the tales of the tribe as participatory effort, to reimagine what the tribe can still become. Stories are meant to set light to darkness.
Yet this assumes something I found myself having trouble with. In this revisionist story, Lao K is implicated in the suicide of Li-ming, demonstrating a depressing end for the revolutionary practice of dialectically mixing narratives, and of attempting to push one’s life beyond one’s historically received station. Behind the lives of the characters is not the force of the author, or world spirit. In the end, they all writhe and, finally, simply, burn out.
So I can only reverse Mao’s famous saying, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Rather, in Empire of Glass, it goes something like: “A spark with nowhere to go is extinguished.” For the main characters: extinguishment. For the backdrop of revolution, it is not, as Lenin put it, “a conflagration of sparks,” but rather a great dousing. For literature, however, it is not appropriation; it’s a collaborative effort—between authors, characters and real and imagined histories—that widens the possibilities.
This is, then, at least a sort of revolutionary practice, or at least as close as many of us can get.
Matt Turner is a writer who lives in New York City. Writings of his can be found in Seedings, Asian Review of Books, Hyperallergic Weekend, and forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Bookforum. His translation of Lu Xun’s 1927 book of prose poetry, Weeds, is forthcoming from Shanghai’s Seaweed Salad Editions. He serves as the guest prose editor for Issue 39 (March 2018) of Cha.