Published by Inanna Publications in late 2018 and edited by Hua Laura Wu, Xueqing Xu and Corinne Bieman Davies, Toward the North: Stories by Chinese Canadian Writers is an anthology of short fiction written by Chinese Canadians over the last 20 years.
This review was done by Jasmine Gui
I was stoked to be asked to review an anthology of translated (a unicorn!) short stories, featuring three women editors, and published by Inanna Publications (what a combination!). I was intrigued by a collection of Chinese Canadian stories written originally in Chinese, spanning two decades, to see what kinds of diversity of content, form, and voice I would encounter.
Toward the North features a lovely selection of refreshing narrative voices. The positionality of the narrators in these short stories occupy liminality even within the Chinese Canadian writing landscape in Canada because many are first-generation writers who have a wildly different relationship with Homeland, identity and language.
Spanning multiple strata in society, the characters of these stories offer so much difference – a privilege not often offered to nonwhite literary characters in the Canadian writing landscape. They are also offered a banality that sweeping epic historical fiction or melodramatic family saga fiction don’t offer; characters in Toward the North are distinctly nobodies.
Chinese short fiction is an interesting genre because it’s so distinctly 20th century modern within the Chinese writing tradition, and that inheritance really comes to play in this anthology. To be fair, some of these stories were written in the 20th century! This genre was forged from a bulwark of attempts to write against tradition and politic that was seen as backward or repressive, and was often animated to write new traditions and funnel new ideas.
Short fiction allowed writers to capture what was popularly considered non-literary content.
The subject matter of Toward the North continues in this practice, and by focusing on the banal, mundane beats of life (echo-ing early European realism), ironically and creatively manages to capture the nuances of upheaval, of domestic and public traversals, of women’s voices and experiences, of economy and culture, and the fluidity of a diasporic generation whose lives are starkly delineated by migration – toward the north.
Stories like “Jia Na Da/Canada” by Yuanzhi and “The Smell” by Xiaowen Zeng approach cultural clash and domestic affairs with a self-assured dry humour. Others like “West Nile Virus” by He Chen, “The Abandoned Cat” by Ling Zhang and “Hana No Maru” by Shiheng are distinctly modern in tone, featuring narrators with strong interiorities.
The titular story of the anthology, “Toward the North” by Ling Zhang is the longest and final piece in the collection, giving it an extra weight that I think it deserves. In the story, male protagonist Zhongyue finds himself first in Toronto, and then at Sioux Lookout, working with a few members of the Ojibwa community living there. As the story unfolds, “North” is unpacked not just as a metaphorical space of possibility, but also as the site of violence and trauma. Characters from multiple intersections inhabit “Toward the North”: the hard of hearing mixed-race Neil, the Tibetan-born diasporic Dawa, Neil’s mother, and Zhongyue’s own marginality as an immigrant now estranged from his family, moving through the world of Sioux Lookout.
“Toward the North” is intriguing in presenting a cast of characters not often congregated, but it also seems to fall into storytelling patterns that I am wary of. At the end of the story, Neil’s biological parents do not survive, and Zhongyue makes plans to adopt Neil as his child. Is the Chinese hetero-male a flawed but celebrated saviour? What other characterizations were flattened to create Zhongyue’s complexity? Do I celebrate this character? The story ends but my wrestling continues, and I wonder about the possibilities of writing the future into the present, and how the Chinese writing community is also figuring, learning and unlearning the nuances of positionality through literature.
As I consider the stakes of world-building in Toward the North, I am reminded of the ongoing need for more anthologies, especially those highlighting the IBPOC writing community.
The translated element of this anthology is a strong piece of engagement for me through all the stories, as I identify the slight stilt of translated-from-the-Chinese sentence structures that form the building blocks of these stories. It reminds me that language is itself representation of a specific kind, and it also reminds me that translated or not, stories are mediated truths.
I read “Vase” by Yafang and am curious if a vase’s discourse will sound less ridiculous and less dramatic in Chinese. I wonder if the epistolary form in “Little Weeping Millie” by Daisy Chang animates a different intertextual body of writing in Chinese.
As a reader, writer, editor and artist, I am looking for different kinds of stories.
All kinds of stories need to be told, all kinds of lives are lived in our histories
All kinds of lives deserve space in our fiction and in our literary canons.
I think about what it means to have access to these voices, to read the inflections of domestic strife wrapped up in a distinct flavour of male fragility in “Surrogate Father” by Bo Sun, to consider Yang Xue’s actions through the lens of gender and social limitations in “An Elegant but Stiff Neck” by Tao Yang.
The more variety I read, the more I hunger to share and read literature beyond the Anglo literary sphere which we sometimes consider the whole of what matters.
In “Grown Up” by Xi Yu, Jiang Xue struggles to understand and communicate with her daughter Wenwen who had been left behind in China while she migrated to Canada, and then brought over at the age of 15. The climax of the story is contingent on a box of condoms, and not in the way you might expect. A sharp and almost playful weave of cultural, generational, immigrant, gendered and linguistic clashes. The turns are subtle, the characters are layered, the content is all-too-relatable, but only for some. Only for some.
I love translated literature because to me, distance and limited access is another way of knowing and understanding complexity. It forces us to reckon with our own limitations and to step with care because we don’t know enough.
What other stories are we not telling? Whose stories have we not yet heard? Toward the North is one wonderful answer. Who else? How many more? Our literatures need to resist simplification and monolithism, a or we run the risk of being represented and understood as a uniform identity as well.
Many of us are all too familiar with this process of continuous erasure.
So what shall we move toward?