Move over (gently and with great affection),
Death and the Intern! August's instalment of our book club has Xue Yiwei's
Shenzheners (Linda Leith Publishing) in the centre spotlight. National Book Award-winner Ha Jin calls Xue Yiwei's writing "mak[ing] a pilgrimage to his masters: Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Proust" – and we can't wait to make our own way into this short story collection with you this month (
still 15% off!).
For our second read this summer of book clubs, we chose Xue Yiwei's
Shenzheners (Linda Leith Publishing). It ticked all of our boxes: a short story collection (love those) about a faraway place (YUUUP) with critical and award attention (*snap snap snap*). More than that, as a Chinese Dubliners, it promised a dose of "great" literature – the kind that got us nerds interested in reading in the first place.
Shenzheners is a collection of nine stories that are led each by a character who is in one way or another connected to the city of Shenzhen, what one character calls "the youngest city in China." As a designated Special Economic Zone where capitalism can flourish in otherwise Communist China, Shenzhen's inhabitants – be they "the Peddler", "the Dramatist", or "the Prodigy" – each suffer a discrete malaise both universally understood and yet unique to living in a city that no one calls home. As a reader, you'll find yourself pulled right into Xue's brilliant use of language (adeptly translated from the original Chinese by Darryl Sterk), the layered references to both Western and Eastern art and literature, and utterly relatable characters struggling in their loneliness.
How relatable, you ask? We've come up with a quiz to find out which story you might especially identify with:
We had to check out what inspired publisher Linda Leith to bring this book to an English-reading audience, so we did! Check out our interview, below.
ALU: How did you find the manuscript?
LL: I was introduced to Xue Yiwei about three years ago by a mutual friend in Montreal, and then to the translator Darryl Sterk. It was only after he had been able to translate the first stories that I had any idea of the quality of the collection.
ALU: How did the cover design come together?
LL: We had chosen the title and, as Shenzheners is in part inspired by Dubliners, I went online to find cover designs used for Joyce’s collection. Some of these broke the word up into three — DUB LIN ERS — which is what persuaded me to break Shenzheners up on the cover as well, as SHEN ZHEN ERS. This worked well, especially since Shenzheners is a long word, and the type would have had to be small for it to fit on one line. The designer, Debbie Geltner, came up with the beautiful colours, and Yiwei asked an old friend of his, Cai Gao, who is a distinguished Chinese illustrator, for the drawings that are included on the cover as well as inside the collection.
ALU: Did anything surprising happen on the way to publication?
LL: What happened even before publication is that some of the Chinese media became very interested in the fact that a book of Yiwei’s would finally be appearing in English. That interest has never flagged, and reached its height when the book won the 2017 Blue Metropolis Literary Diversity Prize in March.
ALU: What was reader response like?
LL: Readers love this book. Most have no way of knowing what to expect, since there has been so little of his work available anywhere in English, but most are intrigued, then captivated as soon as they begin reading. Not only captivated but moved.
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