[REVIEW] “Fiona Sze-Lorrain: Poetry and Translations” by Elizabeth Chung

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

▚ Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Rain in Plural, Princeton University Press, 2020. 120 pgs.
▚ Yin Lichuan (author), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (translator), Karma, Tolsun Books, 2020. 222 pgs.
▚ Ye Lijun (author), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (translator), My Mountain Country, World Poetry Books, 2019. 208 pgs.

If you haven’t yet heard of Fiona Sze-Lorrain, I hope the following will encourage you to find and engage with her work. Sze-Lorrain is a prolific writer, translator, and musician. A professional musician, who plays the guzheng (a type of traditional Chinese zither), she considers her “origins and upbringing [as] a hybrid of East and West, past and present”, which certainly comes across in all three of these works being reviewed, not least her own collection. What is perhaps most useful in all three texts is the use of endnotes, enabling various allusions to be explained for the reader. All three works are by female writers and predominantly contain poetry: Sze-Lorrain herself mixes prose and poetry in Rain in Plural, whilst the translations of Ye Lijun and Yin Lichuan include poetry and an essay by Sze-Lorrain explaining the cultural significance and context of the writers’ backgrounds—something extremely useful for readers who might not be familiar with the history of Chinese literature or culture. It is worth noting that Yin is a multi-disciplined artist (a writer in numerous disciplines as well as a film director), and that Ye was originally a visual artist before she was a professional writer.

In Rain in Plural, Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s latest collection, the poems are divided into five sections which collect diverse themes of family, nature, modernity, and a wide expanse of intertextuality. Reading these poems, one feels almost intimidated by the allusions in her work to both contemporary politics and the works of other artists and writers across Europe and East Asia such as Franz Kafka, Osamu Dazai, and William Blake.

Sze-Lorrain’s work as a multi-disciplined artist is evident throughout Rain in Plural, the third poem of the collection “Macabre Dance” literally evoking musicality through musical terms of the “three-four beat” to start with, followed by “The Problem with Music” narrating the breaking of her guzheng. Themes of nature, modernity, family, home, and living in contemporary society all feature in the book. The third part of Rain in Plural, entitled “Nine Solitudes”, introduces beautiful prose into the poetry collection, and is preceded by a poem entitled “Duende” presumably after Federico García Lorca’s wonderful lecture, describing an alternative to the inspirational figures of the muse or the angel.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the English translator of Yin Lichuan’s Karma and Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country; both are bilingually presented. There is a strong sense in these texts that the original poet and Sze-Lorrain, as translator, work symbiotically. Not only does she make clear her own relationship as translator to the poets in the corresponding essays to each text, but she is also the medium for the English-speaking reader. She acts as both translator and poet, bringing a sense of musicality through a different language for each work. She also translates the heart-wrenching feeling of the autobiographical elements of these works, which incorporate the (at times) intense theme of family.

Yin’s collection takes work from across almost 15 years, with recurring themes of nature, family, travel, and motherhood. The last of these is beautifully transformed across the text; each poem is dated, giving the reader an insight into how the poet’s relationship to motherhood changes from the daughter’s perspective (as seen in “What Kind of Old Woman Do You Want to Be”, written in 2001) to the mother’s perspective (as seen in “Dear Darlings”, written in 2013 for her twin daughters). There is a sense of unfulfillment  at various points of Yin’s work, of the city being dark, evoking death as well as life:

This is not even to mention the beauty in Sze-Lorrain’s translation, bringing musicality through alliteration and rhythms to the English version.

Ye’s book opens with the poem “Sitting and Waiting for Daybreak” before splitting into three sections. This first poem sets the tone for the rest of the collection, as it describes the nature surrounding the building where the first-person speaker sits, as they admire the magnificent beauty around them despite their lack of wealth.

The imagery evoked is mesmerising, as though you can hear the waves from afar and the crickets hiding beneath the window. Ye takes the reader through cities, places, and stories and life events of significance to her—even telling us of her brother’s death. Ye also includes modern references in her work, describing a crab’s eyes as “electric [and] convex” in “First Encounter”, and in “Stroll” she shows how technology is what’s left behind and forgotten when we die or become one with nature. Because of this, Ye’s poetry could easily be politicised into a climate-change-themed poetry collection, but I think that would be crass in many ways, and would take away from the sheer sense of humanity that exists between these pages.

All three collections challenge the reader to interrogate their own relationships both with their loved ones and with nature. Sze-Lorrain takes her multi-disciplinary experience and uses it to her great advantage, not only transposing mesmerising images across a challenging language barrier, but making the translated sounds fit perfectly in its newly designated language. These are, by no means, easy poetry collections, but you needn’t be a literature expert to uncover the beauty within the pages. Sze-Lorrain does the hard work of translation, leaving the reader the freedom of interpretation and enjoyment of the new language. 

How to cite: Chung, Elizabeth. “Fiona Sze-Lorrain: Poetry and Translations.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 30 Mar. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/03/30/fiona-sze-lorrain.

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Elizabeth “Lilli” Chung completed her BA (Hons) in English Literature and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds, UK. For her undergraduate Final Year Project, she performed an original theatre piece about racial performativity. She undertook an exchange year at the University of Hong Kong and is now pursuing an MPhil in English (Literary Studies), focusing on Hong Kong Literature, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She intends to continue doing research at the PhD level. She writes creatively and critically on a range of topics, including her mixed-race experience. Twitter and Instagram: @chungyilei

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