“I told her she would grow up slowly, and that the point of growing up wasn’t to become a certain type of person, but to get hurt. Those hurts are important to us, because they will draw certain people to us – like a thirsty vampire, or a shark.”
– from “餘生的第一天，Plumeria”
It was difficult for me to write this post. The book sits so close to my heart in another language that trying to talk about it in English feels a bit like pulling teeth.
I love reading Chinese short story collections. This genre in particular is called 短篇小說, and literally translates into “short story” (there is also 長篇小說, which you could translate as long short story). These pieces are not long enough to have beginning, ending, or sometimes even plot movement — they utilize a very common Chinese linguistic tendency to sketch a moment or to outline an exchange as a loose constellation of signs with multiple potentialities. They also tend to feature introspective, storytelling-type, narrative voices.
Standing Room Only is physically a stunning book: made with raw edged paper and hand-bound with an exposed spine. Many of the pages in each signature have the crease facing outward and need to be slit open by hand in order to be able to access the writing inside.
The materiality of the book is a part of its charm, and was in fact, what compelled me to take the book off the shelf in the bookstore to begin with. The raw edges of paper, the exposed stitching on the insides and outsides of the signatures, the different paper featured at the beginning and the end of the book all gesture to an intentional thought process in the construction of the book.
The first story of the book 「寫作課的未完成式」”Inked Imperfections”—printed in silver ink on black paper—features two interwoven narratives: one between a man and a woman, and the other of the narrator remembering episodes from her own life. There are words intentionally crossed out, gesturing to the “draft”, asking us to look at this text as incomplete, under revision. The story ends with a brainstorm list of potential titles the narrator is considering for the first narrative, as she turns out to be the author writing that other story. The titles are obvious and not obvious, gesturing simply to the space between the text, and meaning that could be created there.
One of my favourite shorts is「三張畫」”Three Sketches” structured as three literal narrative sketches about three paintings. Each painting emerges from a different context: an old man viewing a exhibition painting done by his wife; a rough sketch done by a domestic worker while her older ward takes a nap; a half-finished watercolour painting being completed by a man mourning his brother.
Quiet and understated, the stories are brimming with what isn’t said. Little details are set up to catch us off guard or to build slowly over time until a single thing breaks my breath. The narrator speaks to me directly many times, controlling the pacing of how I feel my way through each scene, taking me gently but firmly through story after story, recount after recount, into character after character.
Joanne Deng is also an actor, and I find it remarkably refreshing to be able to see multiple representations of her perspective through performance and text. It might also be this commitment to both that impacts the linguistic style of her writing, so focused on the visual frame and the characters moving through it sometimes without dialogue, and sometimes with only dialogue and the performance of voice that speaks to an audience rather than into a void.
“In this industry, you have to walk slowly in order to win. This may sound easy but you quickly discover that when moving forward at a leisurely and relaxed pace, it is easy to lose patience. When you feel that in a long stretch of time, you haven’t yet achieved anything, you sometimes even lose confidence.”
– from “未來回憶，Future Memories”
I am drawn to the incredible range of emotion she can create through monologue: dynamic and resonant, thoughtful and profound, yet conveyed in direct and simple language – conversational. Her prose is rendered in an articulate simplicity that is a oft-tried aesthetic in Chinese contemporary fiction. In fact it is hard to tell sometimes if she’s not just recounting personal episodes through a vignetted format. Only when pieces are read side-by-side do you feel the narrative voice shift character, and recognize the fictionality of the stories that have been set up: such as when the speaker becomes a 10-year-old girl, or the narrator changes from paragraph to paragraph.
The titular short story: 「暫時無法安放的」“Standing Room Only” is a series of monologues shifting between a father and two daughters. The story involves a series of mysteries around an enigma of a mother who is only ever partially accessible. Their stories shift and change shape, impacted retrospectively by the next account told by a different family member.
Deng’s narrative voice in this story takes on a dramatic power that is restrained in the rest of the collection, a contrast I love. And yet, “Standing Room Only” is just another iteration of the larger themes of this collection: there is a sense of weary hope woven into these stories, narrated with love that is strained and tired, teetering on the edge of something else so often that it doesn’t know whether or not it is itself.
“I walked toward the past only to meet you walking toward the future,
you said you didn’t actually know where you wanted to go.
But when I turned toward the future, I met you walking toward the past,
and you said you missed me.
– from “一切不過剛好而已，Only Just”
This is a collection I feel compelled to return to again and again, to read in a different place, in a different time. I feel translation on the edge of my tongue, wanting to try to take the exquisite sensation of Joanne Deng’s prose into English. But I am unsure of what the story looks like on this side of language. In this sense, I feel affinity to Joanne Deng’s first narrator, the one who can’t name her characters but explores the possibility of meaning and framing in multiple names, the one who tells herself learn to delete excessive words and crosses them out by hand but leaves them on the page.
The title of the book in Chinese 「暫時無法安放的」literally means, “That cannot yet be completely put down”. Put down in this sense also means let go off and completely also sort of means peacefully or with assurance. This is not a text that will let me go, nor is it a text that I can let go of with certainty.
Largely the stories in “Standing Room Only” are unfinished, each ending without any sense of closure, only the thoughtful pause that comes after someone has just shared something with you, and in sharing, discovered something new. That is also the journey of reading, the journey of translation, and the journey of crossing into a world into another language.
Aptly named, the collection itself won’t shelve itself away, won’t close and draw a conclusion, it will linger as the quiet wait between the start of another conversation. Sometimes the question mark, sometimes the comma, sometimes the semi-colon.