Xue Yiwei’s short stories of Shenzhen out in English
For Montreal-based writer Xue Yiwei, the publication of the English version of his collection of short stories in Chinese is a remarkable event.
It is the first of a kind in Canada where he has lived for nearly two decades, and all nine stories in the book are about a city in his home country China. With a history of more than three decades, the city in his book developed out of a small fishing village as an epitome of China’s reform and opening-up since the 1970s.
Shenzhen, China’s first special economic zone in the south, saw the initial wave of reforms and paved the way for massive development in the rest of the country.
For Xue, it is a place where many of his short stories are set. The title of the collection, Shenzheners, may remind readers of the masterpiece Dubliners by James Joyce.
But similarities between the two books don’t end there. Dubliners is about people’s disillusionment and recognition of failure and anxiety, while Shenzheners tells about how some residents of Shenzhen, most of whom are migrants, feel they are estranged from the city even after having worked there for years.
In Xue’s own words, their vulnerability forms the basis of the stories. Most people in China tend to turn a blind eye to this aspect of city life when it comes to talking of the urban boom.
What is peculiar about the stories is the fact that the name of Shenzhen does not appear even once in all of them, and not even the name of a street or anything that can remind readers of the city. By telling readers how the dwellers feel about life there and about their own experiences, Xue presents readers with an invisible city.
“What I want to describe is not the look of this city, rather the inner world of some small potatoes who are trying to making a decent living there,” Xue said during a recent trip to Beijing.
He says that he cares about how people feel about the world around them rather than how the world looks, and about marginalized people rather than celebrities. Being concerned about how the disadvantaged feel is what a novelist is supposed to care about, he says.
Except for the story Taxi Driver, the rest were written in Montreal, which is thousands of miles away from Shenzhen. But the long distance could not sever Xue’s psychological connection with Shenzhen — the inspiration for his works. The distance gave him enough room to put into perspective the voices of people that have stayed in his mind for long.
The collection’s publisher Linda Leith says: “What I love most about Shenzheners is its compassionate view of the people and the access it provides its readers into their hearts and minds. These are people identified simply — they’re referred to not by name but as the country girl, for example, the physics teacher, the big sister and the little sister.
“This distances us from them just a little, just enough for us to be able see them whole while allowing us to feel for them in their trials, their loves and their sorrows, as we feel for the individuals we know best in our own daily lives. ”
This is perhaps because their names are not important, and their social status or their relations with the people around them are what makes a difference. The implication may also be that they are nothing as “small potatoes” when it comes to what happens in this city of milestone importance to the reform process.
Yet, the fact is that Shenzhen would not be what it is today without the contribution of such migrants. The irony that they have no names but are all called “Shenzheners” might be what Xue wants his readers to realize at the end of the collection of his short stories.
Xue Yiwei sets many of his stories in Shenzhen, in Guangdong province.