Life Stories #83: Val Wang

Life Stories: Val Wang

In her memoir, Beijing Bastard, Val Wang writes about growing up as a Chinese-American and then moving to Beijing in the late 1990s: “I think a lot of people think I was looking for my roots; that’s a popular storyline for a Chinese-American. But it was really the opposite for me. I was really rebelling from my roots and looking for myself. That very American kind of journey abroad to find yourself is what I thought I was there for.”

Beijing Bastard (the title comes from one of her favorite Chinese movies) is the story of how she delved into the culture, including how she abandoned the expensive housing that was designated for foreigners to find an apartment in a neighborhood so far on the outskirts that the roads eventually ran out of pavement. In our conversation, which was recorded back in 2014, she talks about how moving to China initially made her feel more American, as she began to notice “ways of thinking, ways of walking, ways of talking, ways of gesticulating” in her behavior that helped her understand she wasn’t “coming back” to China; for her, even though she’d grown up hearing about China from her family, it was all new for her. We also discuss how, when she came back to the United States, how she pursued her career as a documentary filmmaker… and why it took twelve years for her to be able to write the story of her time in Beijing the way it needed to be told.

Listen to Life Stories #83: Val Wang (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

photo: Kelly Creedon

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12 July 2016 | life stories |

Amy B. Reid: Conversations Overheard

Amy Reid
photo: courtesy Amy Reid

Lately, whenever I can steal a few moments to read uninterrupted, I’ve been diving into Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant, as translated by Amy Baram Reid. It’s a fantastic novel, set in colonial-era Cameroon, but with an early 21st-century frame that allows for an imaginative reinvention of the past, playful without ever losing its darker edges. As Reid notes, there’s a lot going on in this book for one translator to take on, but I’m delighted by how she’s pulled it off so far, and eager to take the rest of the journey with her.

One of the phrases I remember from childhood—and maybe you do to—is “little pitchers have big ears.” It amused me then because of the incongruity of the image (a pitcher with ears?) and also for its truth: kids soak up what they hear, even if the words aren’t meant for them. It also describes the narrative premise of Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant: for if one kid hadn’t been a sponge for all she had overheard, the stories of Mount Pleasant would have been lost forever.

At the heart of Mount Pleasant are the intertwined issues of conversation and translation: conversations in the present between the elderly Sara and the young Bertha, themselves translations of exchanges years before between another Bertha and the same Sara, a young girl who was transformed by stories into a young boy, Nebu. Conversations and stories swirl magically in the court of the Sultan Njoya and, years later, resurface to enchant both the idle youth of Yaoundé and the novel’s readers. Artists discuss aesthetic ideals and lovers their amorous exploits; ambitious plots are revealed and scars disclose traumas born in silence.

Exchanges in the novel take place in multiple languages, and often on the borders between French, English, and German, between Shümum, Shüpamum, and Ewondo. Writing, drawing, and sculpture become the sites where tales and visions are translated—allowed to travel across time and space, as well as language. This concatenation of words and languages made my experience of translating Nganang’s novel exceptionally challenging and rewarding.


8 June 2016 | in translation |

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