Ways of Writing, Reading and Translating: genre-crossing in the 21st century

Ouyang Yu

After attending the Qinghai International Poetry Festival in early August this year, I decided to find my way about the provinces by first going to Sweet Serious, my direct translation of Gansu. Even before I left Western Peace, or Xining, capital of Green Ocean or Qinghai, the old itch came back: to write anywhere and anyhow. By the end of that journey, over a two-week period, when I returned to Melbourne, I had written 45 poems in Chinese, not counting in the English ones. The perfectionist might say: If you write so many and so quickly, are they any good? My response to that would be: If you make love and come out with semen, do you think any semen is good enough to be kept? And my second response to that petty bourgeois obsession with perfection would be: If you keep refining shit, would it become non-shit, as pictured in a gift card I once saw in Melbourne, featuring a perfect piece of shit, wrapped up in a most expensive-looking foil? Fact is, what is the most poetic comes straight from the rawest experience, not multiple revisions. I once heard a poet talk about another fellow poet who showed him the first draft of his poem and the 13th revision of it for comparisons. I said: So, which one do you think is the best? He said: I think the first draft is still the best. 20 years ago, when I first arrived in Australia, a novelist friend of mine, then quite well unknown, impressed me with a remark that went: A novel is no good if you do not spend at least four years writing it. Many major awards later, he revealed to me that a latest novel took him only six months to complete. I have always questioned the validity of his earlier remark about the 4-year moratorium and I now know that creative writings are not necessarily bound by such crafty practices. I, for one, wrote my best poems without changing a single word; all my 7 poems consecutively included in the best Australian poetry collections over the last 7 years are like that.

To capture the spirit of the moment, like a falling star, like a flying butterfly, like a passing whim, a poet has to be constantly on the alert, whether he is traveling by bus, by train or by plane; whether he is sitting on the toilet, in front of his computer working on a piece of commercial translation or in his car while traveling at the speed of 100 kilometers an hour; whether he is taking a walk outside in the darkness, in his house when all the lights are switched off or in bed before he is about to drift into sleep; or whether he is situated in an over-loud ka la ok bar, in a classroom while teaching or in any human situation or condition in which poetry is called for. The only situation in which I have yet to find a way to write poetry is when I am in the act of making love. When I shared this secret with my Chinese poet friends in Xi’an, they all laughed but when I told an Australian poet of it he said: I think something could be done. For example, you could write on your lover’s naked back. Not a bad idea, actually, I thought to myself! As a matter of fact, I could write on my lover’s naked breast, with her permission, and photograph it; together, we could even stage a live performance/installation in a museum space.

For the purpose of capturing the moment, about 16 years ago, I acquired a Dictaphone and started recording poems that I later transcribed onto paper or in my computer. One of the poems goes in Chinese:





















I must have written this sometime in 1996 or 1997, as I made my way to La Trobe University, stopped in my tracks by a young tree, and, subsequently, on 31 January 2001, I self-translated it into English, as follows:

A Tree

The way

a tree is swaying with the wind

The way

a tree is swaying with the wind after the noon

The way

a tree is swaying in front of the blue sky and the black cloud

The way

a tree is swaying while whistling

The way

a tree is stopping me in the middle of a road

The way

a tree stills itself under the tip of my pen


You’ll notice that throughout this article I don’t quote one single remark from any so-called Masters, unlike some who wallpaper themselves with their sayings like fashionable trinkets or trappings; years ago, when I ran a poetry workshop in Canberra, I asked the attendees to refrain from their quoting impulses and concentrate on the freshest thoughts or feelings. In Australia, this carries a sense of urgency, where food tends to be stale and over-frozen or chilled. No fish comes alive but has to be freezing cold and stone dead. It is only in Chinese restaurants that one can hope to eat stuff raw and alive. Likewise, if you want to eat poetry raw and alive, you’d have to come to my poetry, written and conceived that way, although the conceiving may take much longer in a process that I myself am not aware of. Take my poem, ‘Someone’, which I won’t elaborate on until I finish reading it:



someone is having a morning coffee

someone is typing up an email letter to send somewhere

someone is glancing out the window at the blue september sky

someone is doing something

someone is faxing something somewhere

someone is receiving a phone call from someone else

someone is dialing a number but that number is busy

someone is going to the toilet

someone is doing something

someone is walking upstairs for an exercise

someone has chosen the lift

someone is going down

someone is coming up

someone is opening a large parcel containing poetry submissions

someone is writing a rejection letter to a novelist

someone is thinking of someone else

someone is doing something

someone is having a little hang-over

someone is chatting on the side

someone’s mobile phone is ringing

someone’s laptop has just crashed

someone is restarting

someone is getting technical support and listening to the recorded messages

someone is running whose high-heels are being heard

someone is turning his head

someone is having fun

someone is approaching 50

someone is approaching 23

someone is doing something

someone is going to have a smoko outside the building

someone is worried about his marriage

someone is looking forward to her upcoming wedding ceremony

someone is alive

someone is doing something

someone misses yesterday’s fish

someone is checking and rechecking a large sum of money

someone is having a meeting

someone is listening to birds singing on his dvd

someone is pouring tea into her pot of frangipani

someone is doing something

someone is looking at his screen

someone is stretching his legs and arms

someone is a little unhappy about a difficult client

someone has just lost in the stock market through a lack of sleep

someone turns his head to see the enormous head of an airplane near his window

someone is meeting someone


You probably have guessed it but one reader in the US responded to it by saying that he was so shocked that he actually stood up from his chair. I was not able to write anything till October 2001, more than a month after 9.11, when I, working on a translation document, turned my head towards the window and thought I saw the head of an airplane; thus I worked backwards, leaving the first two lines at the end of the poem. The poem ended up being published twice, first in one US-based literary journal and then in a reading I gave at Sydney University where an editor of a literary journal happened to be there and liked it enough to accept it there and then, one of the very rare moments of spontaneity findable in Australia.

In fact, it is often in circumstances totally unrelated to poetry that I find poetry. Once, when I was given a large commercial document for translation I was saved from utter boredom by a sudden burst of poetry that seemed to spurt uncontrollably out of the technical terminologies. I did what I did, taking it head-on and transformed an otherwise chilling text into poetry, as follows:


other growing or flowering endangered plant bulbs etc (including corms, collars, rhizomes, bulbs, stem tubers and root tubers, endive plants rootless cuttings and scions of endangered plants other endangered live plants (except for those used for breeding) fresh cut flowers and buds of endangered plants (used for making bunches of flowers or decoration) endangered cut flowers and buds that are dried or dyed as part of processing (used for making bunches of flowers or decoration, except the fresh) branches, leaves or other parts of fresh endangered plants, and grass (by branches, leaves or other parts, it is meant the ones used for making bunches of flowers or for decoration and that do not have flowers or buds) other similar endangered bulbs with high content of starch or insulin (including marrow and stems of western grain whether sliced or made into balls, fresh, cold or dried) other endangered pine nuts that are fresh or dry (whether shelled or skinned) endangered plants mainly used as spice (including their certain parts whether or not cut, crushed or ground into powder) pine resin of endangered plants in the pine family natural gum and resin of other endangered plants (including natural tree resin and other oily tree resin, such as scented tree resin)

I could have talked more about many other ways of writing but for the limited space here as I have to move on to ways of reading although I hate to go into that without giving you a most recent example of what I did while traveling in Western Peace or Xi’an, capital of Shanxi province, in mid-August. One night, after dinner, when I took a stroll in North Big Street, or Beidajie, the central street in the city, I saw what I had not seen anywhere else in China or Australia and in decades: a woman breast-feeding her baby. Immediately after, when I got back in my hotel room, I wrote a poem, in Chinese:





















I now include a self-translation here for your benefit:


So Nice

At dusk

When I went on Beidajie Street

I saw a woman

Breast-feeding her baby

Looking quite comfortable

I was comfortable, too

Looking at her half-revealed breast

Filled with bursting milk

At the time, not one in the passing crowds

Paid any attention to her

I recalled how breast-feeding

Was forbidden in public

By law in Australia

Looking at the obsessive state

She and her baby were in

I said under my breath: So nice!


Now, ways of reading. In the late 1980s when I did my MA in Australian literature in Shanghai, I made a discovery that, instead of reading a book right from the beginning to the end word by word, page by page and from cover to cover, for days on end, I could actually finish a big novel of four to five hundred pages in a couple of hours without losing much that I should know. By the time when I began working on my PhD thesis in Melbourne, I had made an all-out effort to search the entire collection of books in the Australian section in the Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, right from A to Z, getting the first-hand information on a subject little touched upon before, in less than 6 months’ time. Titled, Representations of the Chinese in Australian Fiction, 1888 to 1988, the thesis-cum-book now has now been published in the USA. If this method was academic without being creative, my approach became more creative as time went by, particularly in the area of what I called ‘creative mistakes’, ones that I made when I read poetry. At first, I chose to ignore them but by and by I detected poetic sparks that rubbed off the mine of errors. A poem was thus born,


Reading Dana Gioia, wrongly that is

I thought I saw

Peel pain

But I was disappointed

To see

“feel pain”

when I read it again[1]


Creative mistakes are nothing new; they are known to have been extensively used in advertising as divergent spellings or sensational spellings, with such examples as ‘crème egg’, ‘Froot Loops’, and ‘I Would Die 4 U’, a song by Prince, but they caught my attention as early as 2002 when I attended the Hong Kong International Writers Festival where I was writing something in my hotel room when every time I typed an ‘I’, two ‘I’s appeared, a big I alongside a small ‘i’. It was almost like a person representing the big ‘I’ had a smaller person by his side representing a small ‘i’. It was not till I arrived back in Australia that I began exploring the significance of this creative mistake: a writer is this small ‘i’, assigned the job of constantly accompanying this big ‘I’, recording whatever that goes through his mind or heart, until he disappears altogether, the big ‘I’ with the small ‘i’. At other times, I made use of mistakes made by my eyes when reading poetry or prose, and wrote my own poems based on them. Following is an example:


An exercise in creative mistakes

That night drinking away at a seaside bar is only before last night

When the three of us, the three largest languages

In the world, embarked on an exercise unmatched in the countries

Speaking these three

Someone said, I forget who, that Alan Bloom wrote an introduction

To this poetry collection by John Kinsella

And I said, my instinct of correctness swimming up to the bait

It’s Harold Bloom

Hardly had these words crept out of my mouth when I realized

The portent of what it heralded in gods’ creation, three gods, us

I said: no, this is good, let’s keep Alan Bloom

And make Shakespeare Ouyang Shakespeare or Neruda

Juan Neruda and Foucault Stephen Foucault

Lets, us three sang in unison

And gave each other names till we exhausted the fame of hall

Or was it the hall of fame

At the end of the night, though

There was nowhere else to go for another drink

But our separate beds and the idea, once more

Came to me that I should call myself a woman’s name

And they soon agreed: Virginia Ouyang

And dreaming of their own names back at home

In Adelaide suburbs without a single sound that can be called sound


As you can see, this is about a meeting in Adelaide I had years ago with Juan, a Chilean poet, and Steve, an Australian poet who knows the Spanish language. The three of us had loads of fun out of this exercise. I hope this is not tiring you out but once, when I saw a copy of a book, titled, Postmodernism: a beginner’s guide, I thought I saw something else. Hence the poem:


A happy misreading



a beggar’s guide”


I laughed, only to

fall back into


the mundane



Nothing can be more pleasurably creative when writing, reading and translating happen across the board, and across the genres. Take The English Class (2010), my third novel, actually published as the second, because there was a delay with my second novel that was published as the third, Loose: a Wild History (2011). It was in the writing of The English Class that I experimented with writing in bed, in a half-reclining position that was most comfortable to a writing person short of lying fully on his back if he could find a way. It was in that position that I experienced a pleasure better than orgasm, with the sudden insight gained into why writers were so persistent in this calling. In that novel, I explored the young Chinese minds at the crossroads of languages and cultures when they cut and crosscut into their lives, as this passage demonstrates, in part,


While most students were keen on making progress in

English and believed in the superiority of the language over

Chinese, their command of Chinese not that good in the first

place, there was someone who thought otherwise. This was Wei,

a pale-faced handsome boy from Shanghai. If he was not very

good at English, he didn’t care, as long as he could get a passing

mark of sixty per cent. In this he had something in common

with Yang, but Wei was better at both politics and Chinese.

Wei spent most of his time reading ancient Chinese novels and

poetry, perhaps writing some himself. One day he baffled the

whole class by posing a question to Mr Fu, who said that English

was to become the international language and it would be of

great benefit if one could master it as soon as possible.

‘Mr Fu,’ Wei said, his pale face appearing very serious, so

serious that one or two girls looking at him became pale faced

themselves. ‘Can I say something?’

‘By all means.’

‘I don’t think English as a language is all that important or fantastic. There are many things that can be expressed perfectly in Chinese that cannot even be expressed in English.’

‘Like what?’ Mr Fu’s voice sounded a little shaky. Zhenya could see that he was displeased; no one had so openly challenged him this way before.

‘I think our language is infinitely better than English. For example, we can say “as soon as I hear that sort of thing, my head bigs” by using the word “big” as a verb in Chinese. Can you do that in English? We can also use a noun as a verb. Why, I mean, you can describe someone as very China….’

‘Well, I am afraid,’ Mr Fu cut him short. ‘That is you. You are very China, both in your name and in your approach to the study of the English language.’ Secretly, however, Mr Fu had to admit to himself that this pale face had caught him unprepared with something he had only a slippery grasp of himself, despite having a degree in linguistics from Malta, of all the English-speaking countries, a fact that he was reluctant to boast to his students, save that he had been abroad and received training in an English-speaking country. Still, he was quick to rise to his own defense, or, to be more exact, to the defense of a language for which he had been awarded a degree of livelihood, if nothing much else. His mind turned to the undifferentiated gender and the lack of a sense of time in Chinese, but he thought better of it by deciding he’d rather state the facts of life clearly once and for all.

‘Unfortunately, with all its advantages of expression, Chinese is not a language you came to this university to major in. You have to face the hard reality whether you like it or not that once you enrolled in this English class you made a decision that is too important to ignore or retract from. As they often say in Malta, I mean in the UK, take it or leave it. If you think Chinese is preferable to English, why don’t you think twice about the degree you are taking? Why waste all our time arguing about the benefit of something that is so plainly clear to everyone?’

Far from convinced, Wei said to Jing after the class that he was often troubled by this intense conflict between the two languages. It was almost as if his mind was being torn apart by them. Casually, Jing said, ‘Don’t take it too seriously, Wei. It’s just a language, a tool. If you learn how to use it skillfully,

you may find it comes in handy one of these days. In a way, I share your view. There are many things that can be expressed in Chinese that cannot be expressed in English. For example, houpa, which may roughly translate as “hindfear” in English, although they only have “hindsight”.’

‘Well, that’s exactly what I meant,’ Wei said, excitedly. ‘You should have said that in class in my defense!’

‘I’m not sure,’ Jing said. ‘Perhaps you could teach the the laowai,

old foreigners, and give this to them one day.’ [3]

By the time I started writing The Kingsbury Tales, my collection of English poetry, in 2004, I had entered into a stage of writing while standing up, on my ergonomic computer table, for hours at a stretch, at times, and the result, I must say, was much better than if I had sat down, working my ass off as much as working my fingers and back off. One of the first poems I wrote goes,


The Kingsbury Tales: Ah Yu’s tale


I am Jade

My father is a fisher


When Robert first

comes into

my life

I am totally surprised

He is so tall

Taller than most of my


he seems interested in me

but I am repulsed

by his overwhelming smell

his eyes like


his nose so


you could hang

a basket of local

produce from

he speaks Chinese

not perfect

but with his hometown accent

I can’t produce the word except that it sounds like Ah Mah

He who writes through me

Please say it for me

I do not have bound feet

I fish

with my dad

Robert says

that’s what he likes

about me

I bear 3 kids for


live with


for 8 years

then we part hands


Aside: This happened in 1857, when, amazingly, an Irish semen met a Chinese egg

And Robert Hart was born in Milltown, County Armagh[4]


When writing an afterword attached to my translation in Chinese of The Whole Woman (China, 2002), by Germaine Greer, I mentioned a personal truth that zhiyi jiushi shi (direct translation is poetry), with such English expressions as ‘my smile reaches from ear to ear’, ‘weepie’ and ‘whether they have any stomach for womenflesh or not’, directly rendered in Chinese, in a way that makes it more poetic than otherwise.[5] Subsequently, that has become one of the principles for my translation/writing practices, as you have heard at the beginning of this article in terms of place names, with the result of this poem, based entirely on the direct translation of selected expressions to do with China, as follows:




Peony River

Golden Sand River

Angry River

West River

Big Cross River

Through To Heaven River

Pine Flower River

Long River

Refusing Horse River

White Ditch River

Forever Stable River

Old Ha River

Steep River

Clean Water River

Rushing Torrent River

Tender River

Fall River

Green Flow River

Princess River

Ancient Cave River

Sea Wave River

Ant River

Black Dragon River

Letter River

White Pagoda River

Green Retrievable Arrow River

Standing Fog Creek

Flag Mountain Creek

High Screen Creek

Even River

Yellow River

White River

Tang River

Bamboo Creek

Reverse Water

Lifting Water River

Macho Water

East River

Red Water River

Ten Thousand Spring River

Six Rush River

Horse Farewell River

Hibiscus River

Green Juice River

White Dragon River

Peacock River

Bitter Water River[6]


In fact, a poem about Hong Kong, quite relevantly, was written this way, as I am constantly fascinated by the language differences I daily see in this international city:


Place names Hong Kong, a random sonnet list[7]


??KowloonjiulongNine Dragons
????Cheung Sha Wan Estatechangsha wan cunLong Sand Bay Village
???Wong Chuk Hanghuang zhu kengYellow Bamboo Pit
???Ta Chuen Streetda zhuan jieBeat Brick Street
???Causeway Baytong luo wanCopper Gong Bay
???Tsim Sha Tsuijian sha zuiSharp Sand Mouth
???King’s Roadying huang daoEnglish Emperor Road
??Yau Tongyou tangOil Pond
???Kin Hong Streetjiankang jieHealthy Street
???????Shan Mei Street, Fo Tan, Sha Tinshatian, huotan, shanwei jieMountain Tail Street, Fiery Charcoal, Sandy Field
???Wang Lung Streetheng long jieCross Dragon Street
???Wan Fung Streethuan feng jieEncircling Phoenix Street
????Sai Yeung Choy Streetxi yang cai jieWestern Foreign Vegetables Street


Given space, I’d like to talk more, not only about these three crossings but also about ways of publishing and self-publishing, of making books by hand, and of writing until nothing could be published, not even after the author’s death.

[1] This poem was originally written on 19/3/04, after reading Dana Gioia’s Daily Horoscope, p. 63.

[2] Please see the footnote to Kevin Hart’s book, Postmodernism: a Beginner’s Guide, in The Antipodes, December 2004, p. 162.

[3] Ouyang Yu, The English Class. Transitlounge, 2010, pp. 177-8.

[4] Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911) spent 25 years in China as Inspector General of the Chinese Customs. During his stay in China, he had an affair with a Chinese woman by the name of Ah Yu, more stories about them to come in this sequence, this poem written on 5/12/04, in Kingsbury and revised 4/2/05.

[5] See my translation in Chinese, wanzheng de nüren (The Whole Woman). Tianjin: Baihua Literature and Art Publishing House, 2002, p. 438.

[6] Ouyang Yu, ‘China’, White and Yu. Berry, NSW: PressPress, 2010, pp. 16-7.

[7] Ouyang Yu, ‘Place names Hong Kong, a random sonnet list’ (p. 124), Southerly, Vo., 70, No. 2, 2010.

Author: Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu came to Australia at the age of 35, and, by 57, has published 65 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literary translation and criticism in English and Chinese languages, including his award-winning novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002); his collection of poetry in English, The Kingsbury Tales (2008); his collection of Chinese poetry, Slow Motion (2009); his book of creative non-fiction, On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian (2008); his book of literary criticism, Chinese in Australian Fiction: 1888-1988 (2008), and his translation in Chinese, The Fatal Shore (forthcoming in 2012).His second novel, The English Class (2010), won the Community Relations Commission Award in the 2011 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, as well as short-listed for the 2011 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the 2011 Western Australia Premier’s Awards and Queensland Premier’s Awards. Ouyang Yu was nominated one of the Top 100 Most Influential Melbournians for the year 2011 as well as the Top 10 most influential Chinese writers in the Chinese diaspora.Ouyang is now professor of English at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics.www.ouyangyu.com.au

1 thought on “Ways of Writing, Reading and Translating: genre-crossing in the 21st century”

  1. Thank you for the wonderful poetry articles in this edition.
    Michele (Hong Kong)

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