Yi Sang - Korean dadaist/surrealist: a dark allegory of infidelity and self-deception, probes the ambiguities of perception and language through an unreliable narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author himself

Yi Sang, The Wings, Jimoondang Publishing Company, 2001.

"This slender volume of stories is by a famed Korean author from the colonial period, who died at age 27 with TB in Japan. He came to fame because his writing incorporated influences from French existentialism and Dadaism. As such, the stories are redolent of Cocteau and even Kafka, with an unreliable, not necessarily likable narrator, who merely reacts to the moment and lacks the traditions of male ambition and desire. Despite a few awkward instances in the translation, the deadpan yet richly descriptive voice of this unique modernist writer shines through"

"The three stories gathered in this volume display Yi, Sang's inventive manipulation of autobiographical elements, a method which expands his intensely private narratives into broader meditations on love, life, and death. "The Wings," a dark allegory of infidelity and self-deception, probes the ambiguities of perception and language through an unreliable narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author himself. "Encounters and Departures," a tale of ill-fated love revolving around erotic passion and physical illness as metaphors presents a female protagonist modelled on the woman who was, in real life, the author's muse and femme fatale. Similarly, in "Deathly Child," Yi, Sang offers a witty, incisive examination of sexual mores through a fictional reenactment of his ambivalent feelings toward the woman he married toward the end of his life."

"In a recently published essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Edmunson pleads for a contingency that I hope someone can help us achieve:
If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx’s, Freud’s, Foucault’s, Derrida’s, or whoever’s — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we’d declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we’d give readings a rest.
God knows, after all, how many enjoyable novels and stories have been ruined, for readers, by the academic necessity to pin some kind of theoretical tail to the simple and innocent donkey of the story.
Hey academics, we know, theory is what you have. We don’t want to steal that from you. We wouldn’t steal piercings from teens, Ferraris from 40 year old men, or the Vagina Monologues from Berkeley.
However, if you do take that sabbatical from theory (perhaps have a coffee black instead of your soy-latte with nutmeg and coconut shavings, or have a fight in a bar) and come back? Or even if the tweed is too tight and you refuse to give up the bound paper-teat of your preferred theory?
I give you Yi Sang’s The Wings.
Yi is an author begging for a biography. He died at the romantically young age of 27 (as calculated in Korean years) and from remaining photos, seems to have been ruggedly handsome. His stories in this volume focus on unfortunate and doomed love. The booksleeve darkly hints that Yi had a “femme fatale” in his life, while other sources indicate that he might have had a drug habit (Michael Stephens, The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction p. 197), an unfortunate attraction to financial insolvency, and a fatal case of consumption. Being Korean, he likely smoked as well. As is traditional for a certain kind of Korean writer of the era, he ran afoul of the Japanese authorities, who certainly hastened his death.
The Wings is his emblematic story, in this volume accompanied by Encounters and Departures and Deathly Child. As I noted in my top-of-the-set-burner, this work is rich with ore for theory miners. It can be read an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression, an existential/Dadaist/surrealist/suicidal withdrawal from the insanity of contemporary life or, more prosaically as the schizophrenic decline of a man who has lost his relationship with his wife. With its dual foci on sexuality and the totemic role of currency, it also lends itself to feminist or Marxist analytics. All this is packed into a relatively slight 33 pages.
The Wings begins nearly randomly, with short paragraphs and semi-nonsensical epigraphs (if that is possible) slowly coalescing into the narrative of a profoundly alienated man and his semi-schizophrenic life with his wife. The plot might have been a bit more opaque when the story was written – this is to say that the modern reader will quickly discern what the wife’s “job” is, but the narrator so convincingly describes his own alienated state that his continual ignorance and avoidance, interlarded with brutal comeuppances that bring him face to face with it, seem perfectly logical.
Near the outset, the narrator notes, “a mirror is a practical thing only when it reflects one’s face.” Yet this narrator can never come face to face with himself or reality. He lurks in the “dusky” corners of the world, despite his nyctalopia, which would suggest brighter environments. He is young, at 26, but seems immeasurably older, partly because Yi is a master at describing long torments in compact prose. The narrator lurches from darkness in his bedroom, to darkness in the outside world, only through the prism of his wife’s bedroom, and the guests she frequently entertains. The narrator is only able to navigate the outside world by virtue of money which his wife awards him in an alarmingly ritual and impersonal way (Here, a perceptive reader can imagine feminism and capitalist critique intersecting). The wife’s money is a necessity for the narrator, but he despises (and loves) it. Initially he won’t spend the money, once he even tosses it into the toilet that, at the time, probably didn’t mean a porcelain fixture. Obversely, without the money, he is helpless.
The other stories work as plot counterpoints to The Wings. Encounters and Departures could serve as partial prequel to The Wings as it tells the story of a husband and wife/prostitute and how they meet and marry (and partially repeat this cycle in classic Korean short-story cyclicality). Encounters and Departures is similar to The Wings in its symbolic uses. The narrators in both stories are presented as preternaturally old looking and hairy. Both narrators seem to exist in a sequestered perpetual time that does not intersect with the prosaic schedules of the remainder of humanity. Yi’s narrators are gaunt and insubstantial, existing in an uncomfortable state of liminality, somewhere closer to Hell than limbo, but in which they are their own Charon, endlessly ferrying themselves from nowhere to nowhere, with only a bleak darkness behind the stage.
The final story, Deathly Child, is brilliantly experimental. Another lost narrator is incapable of navigating day to day relationships, reporting them as absurdist travelogues between mutually incomprehensible natives of the same language, land, city, even the same relationships. The story is in titled fragments and (as the translation reveals it) may be on of the first Korean short stories to include English loan words.
The three stories in this collection are brilliant; painfully dark jewels from an author without much optimism about anything, but with a keen eye for absurdity.
Run out and purchase it online from Seoul Selection.
So, really, since it is online you don’t have to run at all!-
"With the charlatans, liars, and robbers at the Republican convention trying to snow me with their ideology of balanced accounts, self-madeness, hard work, a less generous, more ‘austere’ government, etc, which really hides the bloodthirsty greed of the weasels who built and fecklessly crash the anyhow unsurvivable global economoy,  it comforts me to give some thought to writers who reject this “wholesome” ideology all together in favor of a Bataillean bereftness, a limitless pouring out of resources, a going beyond, an excess, a cult of luxury, sensation, and suicide, death, that is, the decadent.
Glimpsing Fi Jae Lee’s ghostly, multi-protuberant, ectoplasmic sculptures of Yi Sang and his wife impelled me to track down books by this crucial Korean Modernist who died of tuberculosis at 27 after a term of imprisonment by the Japanese for thought crimes. A innovator of Korean literature with his intense, indeterminately genred work, he encountered  European modernism while in the schools of the Japanese occupiers. He surely birthed a strange headed  beast from his duress, his split-apart ribs.
The three short prose pieces gathered as ‘The Wings‘ [the Wings, Encounters and Departures, Death Child] create an intense yet diaphanous continuous fabric through which the youthful yet decaying speaker, named Yi Sang, engages in strange transactions with the universe, as embodied by a fitfully attentive/abusive ‘wife’ figure.  The permeable, irregular fabric of these tales prioritizes luxurious sensation over utilitarian shelter, both at the debilitated Yi Sang’s expense.
In the first story the apartment house the two live in is ‘just like a house of pleasures’; eighteen households live side by side behind ‘papered lattice doors’, ‘the cooking holes identical, too.’ Yet, ‘the residents are young as blossoms’. Exposure produces a possibly fragile beauty, a blossom, but a blossom is a growth which has pierced through and which erratically persists. Yi Sang spends his time sleeping, hiding under a quilt while his wife entertains ‘guests’, carefully noting what he can hear and see through this membrane, moving across minute spaces with deliberation:
“It has become a major recreation of mine that I promptly go to the front room in the morning when my wife goes out and watch various bottles on her make-up chest brilliantly glimmer with the sunbeam trickling in through the eastern window I opened.”
Yi Sang opens the window, but looks not at the dawn, that productive signal to good citizens to go out to work, but at the brilliant light in the little makeup flasks. It is a decadent choice, a rejection of both nature and utility in favor of effortfully obtained sensation. It reminds me of Pater: “To burn always with this hard, gem like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
Yi Sang’s mysterious wife gives him a silver coin after her guests leaves, his ‘tip’. The accruing pile of silver coins is at once the only measurable accumulation visible to this tenuous soul and nothing; he  eventually throws them in the toilet. Yet he soon wants more money- value, above all is fluctuating. No value is permanently negated or erased from the world; in each story, the fickle wife keeps coming back; one tale is entitled “Encounters and Departures”.
A ‘Yi Sang’ in the tale ‘Deathly Child’ begins, ‘This is the touching scene my feelers discern’ and later notes,
The suicide verdict that has been handed down to me reads:
“It has been shown that the defendant has hastily squandered his life. To extend the defendant’s life by a day would result in an unnecessary burden to the operational costs of the universe. Therefore, it is decreed that the defendant shall enter the rat hole without turning back even to look at his own tail.”
With this figurative ‘termination notice’ from the universe, Yi Sang declares himself once and for all with those who cannot keep the balanced accounts of respectful society, whose profligacy is so ecstastic that he must be driven down into the ‘rathole’ of dense, irrational, unacknoweldged yet still present space, the kind of black space through which his aesthetic and political inheritor, Kim Hyesoon, moves as muga or shaman, possessed by all that is abandoned. It is this subterranean, blacked out terrain, blacked out and blacked in again and again with the collapsing and corrosive catastrophes of centuries, from which the 21st century’s art and noise must issue, through which its profligate artists must move. -
"The narrator of "The Wings" is simple, apparently dumb and at least partly autistic. He lives in one room, kept by a wife who works as a prostitute; he understands neither sex nor money, but something of their importance is clear to him. When he begins to go out while his wife is with clients, to wander the streets at night, what order there is to his life disintegrates. The two other stories in The Wings, "Encounters and Departures" and "Deathly Child", are not quite as stark, but they are similarly dark and uneasy. They involve socially alienated individuals, sexual passions and obsessions, and the questioning of sexual mores. It's powerful stuff, and three stories in this vein are probably as much as one can take in a single hit.
A brief biographical paragraph is the only commentary in this collection. Yi Sang died of tuberculosis in 1937, aged only 27, while imprisoned in Tokyo on charges of "thought offense" — and apparently these stories are built out of autobiographical components, which doesn't suggest a happy life! Yi Sang may have been influenced by the writings of the European avant garde, but his stories charted a different landscape" - Danny Yee 

 Yi Sang (real name Kim Hae-gyeong) was one of Korea's most innovative writers of modern literature. He is best remembered for his poems and short stories. In his famous story collection, "The Wings," he explores the dark world of prostitution and poverty, of socially alienated individuals, sexual passions and obsessions. Dark pictures are filled with irony, existentialism and humour and the themes and style, although influenced by the European avant-garde, are unique. He is known as a dadaist, surrealist and symbolist who wrote in Korea, which was colonized by Japan in his time. The stories and poems can be interpreted as political allegories against Japanese rule or a protest against the absurdity of life or a warning against the degradation of humanity. He intensively exploited richness and recursive possibilities of language, relying often on patterns of repetition and deviation. His works are partly autobiographical. Almost unknown during his lifetime, he was rediscovered in the 50s and became very popular.
Yi Sang died very young, at the age of 27, from tuberculosis that he contracted in a Japanese prison, after he was arrested during his visit to Tokyo on “thought crime” charges. Based on his life story, Horse Trade Theater Group & Mocador produced a Sung Rino’s play, "Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen," and won the 2001 Fringe NYC award for Excellence for Overall Production Award.

Major works:
Nalgae (Wings), 1936
Yi-Sang Jeonjip (collection of 15 stories)
From Crow's-eye View 

Excerpt at issuu

Read the story "Wings" in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology
some some excerpts from poems in Three Poets of Modern Korea (trans.by Yu Jung-yul and James Kimbrell):

The toy bride might come back, remembering the rich landscape of noon. She is warm like the notepad in my bosom. The scent of her is all that comes close to me. I waste away.

If I give a needle to the toy bride, she will pierce some random objects thoughtlessly. Calendar, book of poems, pocket watch. And the place in my body where the past perches most closely.

This is proof that thorns rise in the mind of the toy bride. That is, like a rose…

13 children rush down a street.

(A dead-end alley will suffice.)

The 1st child says it is terrifying.

The 2nd child says also says it is terrifying.

The 3rd child says also says it is terrifying.

The 4th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 5th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 6th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 7th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 8th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 9th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 10th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 11th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 12th child says also says it is terrifying.

The 13th child says also says it is terrifying.

Can a man with five viscera and six entrails be distinguished from an underwater cattle shed?

I was locked underground like a venomous snake in its high tower and could not move my limbs again• until the sparkling heavens come

When I closed my eyes as if ready for the rifle’s blast, what was it that I spit out instead of a bullet?

If I die pressing my hand over my mouth, the butterly will fly away as if to stand up just after my sitting down. I’ll keep this secret inside.

Red ink spilled from the dummy heart. In my dream (the on I was later for), I was condemned to capital punishment. I did not control my dream. It is a serious crime that separates people who can’t shake hands.

The Future Is Japanese - 13 stories: A web browser that threatens to conquer the world. The longest, loneliest railroad on Earth. A North Korean nuke hitting Tokyo, a hollow asteroid full of automated rice paddies, and a specialist in breaking up “virtual” marriages

The Future Is Japanese, Nick Mamatas, Masumi Washington, Haikasoru, eds., Haikasoru, 2012.

A web browser that threatens to conquer the world. The longest, loneliest railroad on Earth. A North Korean nuke hitting Tokyo, a hollow asteroid full of automated rice paddies, and a specialist in breaking up “virtual” marriages. And yes, giant robots. These thirteen stories from and about the Land of the Rising Sun run the gamut from fantasy to cyberpunk, and will leave you knowing that the future is Japanese!

Pat Cadigan
Toh EnJoe
Project Itoh
Hideyuki Kikuchi
Ken Liu
David Moles
Issui Ogawa
Felicity Savage
Ekaterina Sedia
Bruce Sterling
Rachel Swirsky
TOBI Hirotaka
Catherynne M. Valente

VIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint announces the release of THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, a new fiction anthology featuring science fiction and fantasy stories from some of today’s greatest writers from both Japan and the English-speaking world.
Haikasoru publishes some of the most compelling contemporary Japanese science fiction and fantasy stories for English-speaking audiences, and is the first imprint based in the U.S. dedicated to Japanese science fiction and fantasy in translation.
THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE offers a selection of original and classic science fiction about Japan from some of the greatest writers in the world. Stories include a web browser that threatens to conquer the world, the longest, loneliest railroad on Earth, a North Korean nuke hitting Tokyo, a hollow asteroid full of automated rice paddies, and a specialist in breaking up “virtual” marriages. And yes, giant robots. These thirteen stories from and about the Land of the Rising Sun run the gamut from fantasy to cyberpunk, and will leave readers knowing that the future is Japanese!
“THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE is a stirring new anthology and the first release of original prose fiction by Haikasoru,” says Nick Mamatas, Haikasoru Editor. “Japan is a nation long renowned for its futuristic worldview, and THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE will engross readers with short stories by authors such as cyberpunk legends Pat Cadigan and Bruce Sterling, New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente, the enormously popular and prolific Japanese writer Hideyuki Kikuchi, and hot new writers Rachel Swirsky, David Moles, and Ken Liu, who have all already won or been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards. We look forward to readers discovering and enjoying this new collection!”

"Since the debut of Viz's Haikasoru ("high castle") imprint in 2009, it has imported and translated the best of Japanese speculative fiction, earning Haikasoru editor Mamatas a Hugo nomination in 2011. This anthology, an attempt to link Japanese and American SF, continues that tradition of greatness. Eleven original stories and two reprints by notable authors both Japanese (Hideyuki Kikuchi, Toh EnJoe) and not (Catherynne M. Valente, Bruce Sterling) posit a diverse array of futures that may await Japan and the world. The bitter pessimism of the late Project Itoh's "The Indifference Engine" is balanced by the essential optimism of Issui Ogawa's "The Golden Bread"; the heroic sacrifice in Ken Liu's "Mono no Aware" contrasts with the examination of malevolent genius in TOBI Hirotaka's "Autogenic Dreaming." Mamatas and Washington, Haikasoru's editor-in-chief, have created a uniformly excellent anthology that will appeal to English-reading speculative fiction fans all over the world." - Publishers Weekly

"In his introduction to The Future is Japanese, co-editor Nick Mamatas notes that Japanese Science Fiction is just like "Western Science Fiction, in that it is hard and soft, dark and whimsical, rigorous and fantastical." And Mamatas' new book, coedited with Masumi Washington, serves as a fantastic bridge between Western and Japanese SF. The anthology brings over some authors who aren't well known in the West and takes some well-known Western authors over. The Future is Japanese collects a bunch of short stories that look at the present and far future of Japan. The result is an utterly gripping collection of authors across thirteen stories, all relating to Japan or Japanese culture. For someone like me who's never been to Japan, this anthology presents a vivid, diverse and very interesting take on Japan and its future.
There's nary a story in here that doesn't capture the imagination. The book starts off with a bang in "Mono No Aware" by Ken Liu, a great story about nationality, after Earth is struck by the Hammer, a massive, planet-killing asteroid. (Disclaimer - I read a copy of this story when it was in draft form). This story sets the tone for the anthology: What's covered here isn't just the physical location of Japan, (although that figures in heavily for most stories), but the culture of Japan.
Recently, there seems to be a collective desire for science fiction that isn't about a future United States, and The Future is Japanese is a great move in that direction.
Full sizeOther stories rapidly follow suit: "The Sound of Breaking Up" by Felicity Savage takes on an increasingly isolated, internet based culture, while mixing in a good dose of time travel and an end-of-civilization vibe that would work well as a Fringe episode. "The Indifference Engine" by Project Itoh is an incredibly difficult and emotional story about ethnic warfare, and the lengths that people will go to 'solve' the problem. Bruce Sterling's "Goddess of Mercy" is a fascinating take on piracy in a post-apocalyptic Japan. "The Sea of Trees" by Rachel Swirsky is a break from the science fiction and into contemporary fantasy with an off-kilter ghost story.
The highlight of the entire anthology, however, is saved until the end, with "Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds" by TOBI Hirotaka, which presents a wonderfully complex and beautiful story about a serial killer, cloud computing and the future of creativity.
I can't speak for how much of an 'authentic' view of the future of Japan this is: There's a wide mix of authors and ethnic backgrounds here, and this has been something on my mind as I went through the book: speculation aside, does this really present an authentic view of Japan and its culture? But by the end of the volume, I came away with the great feeling that this was an excellent anthology of speculative fiction, with a collection of stories that are genuinely unique, interesting and relevant." - Andrew Liptak


From “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds” by TOBI Hirotaka

“I didn’t kill her. She did it herself,” Jundo says.

“She used your knife to stab herself in the throat.”

“That’s right. Mrs. Tsuge used my knife. Thank you—I hadn’t thought of that name for a long time. Yukiko Tsuge.”

“Your teacher had no reason to kill herself, of course. She had a warm family life with a husband, a daughter in fourth grade, and a son in kindergarten. She was happy.”

“She had her reasons. We all do. I just gave her a little encouragement.”

“You manipulated her. No threats, no hypnosis, just conversation—”

Jundo had the ability to drive people to suicide with nothing more than conversation. This he confirmed in writing before his death. If it struck his fancy, he could make you take your own life, no matter who you were.

Seventy-three victims. His final testament bore a list of their names.

Each one had proved to be a real person. They each had had a relationship with Jundo, just as he stated. He knew the time and manner of each death. Yukiko Tsuge was his eighth victim, which meant Jundo had already wielded this power as a child. His first victim was the father of a classmate, a man widely known for making violent threats. On his way to work, he jumped the center divider and plowed head-on into several other cars, dying instantly. The evening before he was killed, he had been talking to Jundo.

Some victims took their own lives on the spot, others committed suicide months or years after their conversation with Jundo. According to his testament, he found it amusing to force people to recall long-forgotten personal secrets and sins. Then he would bore in and finish them off.

Jundo’s testament reproduced an example, a fragment, of one of these exchanges. It ended in the suicide by poison of a fellow writer his age. Everyone who read the account was struck by a physical conviction that it was genuine. It was as if the letters Jundo used to record the conversation began to move like insects on the page, crawling under the nails of the hand holding the document. The quiet abuse he unleashed on his victims is still under analysis by more than one organization.

“—just conversation.”

“Not always.” Jundo looks annoyed. “Words weren’t enough for Mrs. Tsuge. She was obstinate. She wouldn’t go over the edge until I gave her my ear. It was never that difficult before. That was my biggest disgrace. The worst stain on my record. I made up my mind never to repeat such a blunder. So you see, my missing ear is the core of my identity. But you’ve grown it back. You mock my dignity.”

He doesn’t look as angry as he sounds. His eyes are a mix of boredom and irritation with a trace of interest. A viscous look, something slowly mixed together and congealed, like the film on a bowl of porridge gone cold. That disturbing gaze, the one that comes to mind when anyone hears the name Jundo Mamiya.

“The ear of a child on an adult’s head. The technology to do that without the slightest effort is the core of what I am. You regard yourself very highly, but you can’t even escape this room with no locks. From where I sit, you’re a nonentity.”

Jundo’s eyes smolder. “I want this ear gone.”

“Then maybe you’d like to do it again? I can’t give you a razor, but you can always tear it off.”

“Tell me to tear it off. I’ll probably use all my strength to do it.”

This surprises me, frankly. Jundo is nearing the core. No, he’s already there.

“I’m sure you would. You are completely in our power.”

“‘Our power’? I see.” Jundo never misses a detail. A man who can kill with a few words. Superhuman profiling ability. “This is some sort of project, isn’t it? And I’m one of the inputs.”


“You regenerated my ear. You control me completely. Dress me in clothes I can’t take off. How can such technology be?”

“You yourself are the proof its existence.” I manage to force that one out.

“At minimum, I seem to have no physical existence. Are you using some kind of emulator?”

“In a sense. But you know that simulating a real person’s body and their mind and actions would be impossible. It’s far too complex. Especially when the person you want to simulate has been dead for thirty years.”

My function is to draw Jundo’s attention to the fact that he’s dead. That he is not of this world. That nevertheless, our literal technology has given him a brief resurrection.

We agents—thousands of us deployed throughout GEB—are each delineating thousands of Jundo Mamiyas. I am speaking to one of them. I speak to spark awareness.

You are one of the dead.

A patchwork monster.

A botched Ahab.


“And what if I’m not a simulation?”

The dead man, the monster, the Ahab, gets out of his chair and faces me. Small and tough. He stands relaxed, like a veteran judoka. The tall, narrow window behind him is turning the color of boiled pine pitch. Night is flowing in. Night air seems to rise from Jundo’s body. I try to speak, but I only mumble. Is he controlling my will? Jundo takes a step forward.

“In that case, what are you doing?”


I sense that Jundo has already reached this conclusion, but I speak anyway.

“I am ‘writing’ you.”

#The Letter

Those happy hours we all spent together will never return

I have been praying to God to reunite us

I have prayed every day since we parted in the civil war

In this remote village

Where Fernando, the girls and I struggle to survive

Except for the walls, this house has changed completely

What could have happened to all the wonderful things we had

I say this not out of nostalgia

That is something I have not been capable of feeling for years

So much that we knew was lost, so much has been destroyed

Only sadness remains

Along with the things we lost,

I think we have also lost the strength to live life fully

I don’t know if this letter will reach you

The news from outside is so sparse, so confusing

Please let me know that you are alive

All my love



Tania Hershman - Flash fiction: We locked him in the Room and then we watched him on our screens. He skipped across the carpet, put his nose up to the window. An airplane flew by and we imagined what he must be thinking

Tania Hershman, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, Tangent Books, 2012.

 My Mother Was an Upright Piano: Fictions builds on the strengths of Tania Hershman's first collection of short stories The White Road and Other Stories, which was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Hershman's fiction is inspiring, thought-provoking and witty. Her economy with words cloaks her subtlety and power, and she is able to create characters with distinct voices and explore deep and sometimes disturbing relationships is just a few paragraphs of prose. Her writing style has a lyrical quality and often the meter of her work brings added resonance to her themes.

 "Tania Hershman makes immaculate tiny stories that punch ten times heavier than their weight, as if a 500 page novel had been ground up and distilled into capsule form. They are so biting and so perfect they seem to hang in the air for moments after you’ve finished reading them, like little prayers. Emotionally wrenching, funny, quirky, and full of condensed wisdom, insight and love, Hershman’s short short stories are whirring, ticking word machines waiting to explode inside you."  David Gaffney
“Unique voices of mystery, love and loss in stories thrumming with big ideas. Elegant and powerful.” - Paddy O'Reilly

"The writer Alasdair Gray once described himself as “a maker of imagined objects.”  It strikes me that Tania Hershman needs a more artful descriptor than ‘writer,’ too: brilliant; mysterious; not of this earth—I adore her and I adore this book." - Marjorie Celona

  "Funny, fresh, lyrical.  These stories are like colorful glass lozenges holding the substance of our everyday lives, sparkled up by the unusual and wondrous." Aimee Bender

“This collection is two rich catalogs interleaved. In the first, the stories succeed precisely where their own characters fail: these deft fictions are full of (and about) the humor and heartbreak made manifest when communication fails. In the second, meaning somehow gets through, albeit not through words, but through physics, say, or music, say, or love. Together the two halves lay bare a world where speaking clearly is nothing short of heroic.” - Roy Kesey

"Tania Hershman's fictions are incredible things which both challenge and explore the wider picture whilst honing in on the minutae of everyday life. Bold, assured and poetic My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions confirms Hershman's standing as an important contemporary voice."
- Lee Rourke

"Simply superb, and anything but simple, these fictions peel back the layers we build up over our lives with the sharpest of scalpels: the eye of that rare creature - a real writer." - Vanessa Gebbie

Short short fiction aka flash fiction has a hard job with visibility. It’s so… short. Ephemeral. Over in an instant. And not a format that traditional publishers are falling over themselves to get into print. So it’s something of an achievement thatTania Hershman’s collection of flash fictions, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, has not only been published but also featured on BBC Radio 4’s Pick of theWeek. Short fiction apparently doesn’t sell perhaps because it is notoriously ‘difficult’. It’s stuff to be studied in universities, not read for pleasure. Or is it? Hershman’s fictions are experimental yet accessible, and their length acts in their favour in a world where we are all apparently time-poor and attention deficit disordered.
The title story is a great place to start. It showcases Hershman’s ability to extend an apt metaphor, and make it resound with meaning, humour and pathos in a minimum of words:
“My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro.”
The whole story is barely more than a page long, but this first line takes you right to the heart of the issue. Getting the opening right is one of the big challenges of short form writing, and it’s one of Hershman’s real strengths.
Another is her range: she’s good at upbeat stories about the fragile start of love and lust; she’s great at writing about damaged, inarticulate people, and she’s got an interesting sideline in science/fiction going on that I feel would be worth her exploring in longer form. She’s also strong on horrific and heart rending scenarios, which pepper the collection – stories like ‘Move Quickly Now’, ‘The Angle of His Bending’ or ‘Into The Waiting Arms of God’, which are obliquely told, yet which leave you chilled. Again no mean feat in the confines of a couple of hundred words.
She also experiments with form, with some good results – I particularly liked the stories told from the point of view of trees (‘The Apple Trees Watched and Wondered’) and a new born baby (‘Colours Shift and Fade’) and those about people in queues (‘Waiting In Line’ and ‘The Beam Line’).
This is strong and assured writing, which demands your attention. No skimming or scanning here: but even the most time starved potential reader can and should be able to spare three minutes to give undivided attention to one of these.
A minor quibble: I spotted four typos in the edition I read. At a cover price of £9.99 for a paperback, I’d expect better. In case there’s a chance of a second print run, Tangent Books editor please take note.
Any Cop?: Good book for people with no time. Read on public transport, between meetings, when the baby’s having a nap. Recommended for aspiring short fiction writers. Read this and learn your craft." - Ebba Brooks

On Goodreads, Berit Ellingsen says: "there is no doubt that Hershman is an expert of the very short story. The themes in the collection are nicely cohesive and the voice and narrative structure well varied. I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of these stories in their individual publication, but reading them all together for a full impression of the author’s warm voice and deft descriptions, was even better." Read the full review. 

And Roxane Gay says  "The stories that were great ... were truly great. I particularly liked how she was able to warp reality and time in different ways. Hershman is not lacking in imagination and this is definitely a book worth reading." Read the full review.
David Clarke says: "Tania Hershman's prose...[is] a kind of poetic prose, a heightened prose - but somehow not prose poetry. She's interested in the things unsaid, the gap between desire and fulfilment, things we leave hanging in the air. That's where these short pieces work best. She conjures a situation - sometimes commonplace, sometimes surreal - then leaves us to imagine the hows, the whys and the what-nexts." Read the full blog post.

Scott Pack, who reviews short stories over at Me and My Big Mouth, says of the title story of my collection: "A more beautiful few lines on the bittersweet reality of adultery you'll be hard pressed to find.
." Read the review here.

Benjamin Judge says: "If I had to sum up Tania Hershman’s prose in a word (and I don’t, but I’m going to anyway for dramatic effect) that word would be ‘alive’....Since The White Road, Hershman has been one of the names I most often think of whilst arguing the short story is actually going through a very good patch thank-you-very-much. My Mother was an Upright Piano confirms her as one of the most interesting writers around. You need to buy this one..." Read his full review here.

Brian Clegg calls the book "... a brilliant collection. And the stories are so short that if you don't like one it doesn't matter - you are already into the next (the difficulty is putting it down)". Read his full review here.

excerpt »
My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else's husband who turned her into a baby Grand.
How did I know? She told me....

read some fictions:

my mother was an upright piano watch me read this!
we watched him  on our screens
it could almost be an accident

watch the trailer

Tania Hershman's web site

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China - These tough and bleak tales from China's booming cities show humanity enslaved again by the pursuit of wealth

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu & Ra Page, Comma Press, 2012.

AUTHORS: Jie Chen, Han Dong, Diao Dou, Cau Kou, Ding Liying, Ho Sin Tung, Yi Sha, Zhu Wen, Xu Zechen and Zhang Zhihao.

‘Everyone in the whole country knew this place was full of money, you only had to bend down and pick it up; everyone in the whole country also knew that opportunity here was like bird shit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich…'
To the West, China may appear an unstoppable economic unity, a single high-performing whole, but for the inhabitants of this vast, complex and contradictory nation, it is the cities that hold the secret to such economic success. From the affluent, Westernised Hong Kong to the ice-cold Harbin in the north, from the Islamic quarters of Xi’an to the manufacturing powerhouse of Guangzhou - China’s cities thrum with promise and aspiration, playing host to the myriad hopes, frustrations and tensions that define China today.
The stories in this anthology offer snapshots of ten such cities, taking in as many different types of inhabitant. Here we meet the lowly Beijing mechanic lovingly piecing together his first car from scrap metal, somnambulant commuters at a Nanjing bus-stop refusing to acknowledge the presence of a dead body just metres away, or Shenyang intellectuals conducting a letter-writing campaign on the moral welfare of their city. The challenges depicted in these stories are uniquely Chinese, but the energy and ingenuity with which their authors approach them is something readers everywhere can marvel at.
A young woman races across Chengdu one evening to stop her best friend from murdering her cheating husband...
A student staying with his friend's family in Harbin becomes obsessed with a girl at a train station who he doesn't even know...
A disillusioned newspaper columnist in Shanghai receives a disturbing phone call one night from a distressed housewife..."

If you are interested in Literature and Chinese Urban Culture, here’s one for you: Shi Cheng: Short Stories From Urban China. (edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhghua and Ra Page, published by CommaPress). This collection of short stories by a few of China’s hottest and most talented contemporary writers offers non-Chinese readers with an insight in what’s going on in Urban China and a peek into what Literary China has to offer nowadays. All stories take place in cities throughout China: Harbin, Shenyang, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The authors use the environment of the city as a theatre in which the stories are to be unfolded. All of them do this in an amusing yet not pulpy way: stories by the hand of contemporary writers like Han Dong, Jie Chen, Xu Zechen (link to personal website for Chinese-readers here) and, my personal favorite, Cao Kou, are written in witty, obscure, realistic and cunning styles. There’s something in this collection for all tastes. My favorite story must be “Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu” by Cao Kou, a story which sets in Chengdu. As for the question whether Kangkang is actually going to kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu, I urge those who want to know more about Chinese Urban Culture or Chinese Literature to please DO find out, it’s worth it! - fangruben

"Comma Press is a Manchester non-profit outfit which specialises in themed projects, as far as I can see mostly short story collections. They have published a few city based collections, of which Shi Cheng (meaning Ten Cities) is their latest – a literary tour of ten Chinese cities. There’s a handy map at the front so geography nerds can look up exactly where each story comes from.
The short story format works well for these authors. Their stories cover various themes but share a certain style, which is clean, clever and down to earth. In comparison to the short stories of Yiyung Li, which is the nearest thing I’ve read, they are less refined (or at least less Westernised) and show a China which is more mundane but also more diverse. And apart from a rare moment of clunkiness, the translations are first rate.
The collection opens with a story from Hong Kong called ‘Square Moon’, in which a young woman meets a foreigner who lives in a haunted house. Moving Northwards to Guangzhou, ‘But what about the Red Indians?’ is a coming of age story about two childhood friends with a slightly unsubtle ending.
Chengdu’s contribution, ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’, is narrated by the friend of a woman who wants to kill her husband. Apparently aesthetics are an essential criterion when choosing a murder weapon:
“The main thing was to put a stop to the vegetable knife. Kangkang just doesn’t have any style, she would totally take the vegetable knife. You might as well use a watermelon knife, aesthetically speaking.”
‘Rendezvous at the Castle hotel’, from Xi’an, is a slightly scandalous tale involving a newcomer to the Xi’an poetry scene and a couple of elderly Japanese tourists. My favourite story of the bunch was ‘This moron is dead’, from Nanjing, an absurd but atmospheric tale about how the city deals with a dead man on the pavement. Set in Beijing, ‘Wheels are round’ is the story of a mechanic who constructs a car out of scrap parts.
“I can say with confidence that no more thana handful of human beings have ever laid eyes on a car like that one: it was a monster. Its skin was still rusted sheeting – I mean not a speck of paint –that was all he could afford. Never mind that, there wasn’t even enough to go around: he’d been obliged to make a convertible…the front wheels were smaller than the back wheels, and the whole car seemed to lunge forward angrily.”
Whilst they aren’t overtly political, a few of the stories nod at political developments. Shenyang’s story ‘Squatting’ documents the city rulers’ increasingly ridiculous measures to rid the city of crime, whilst ‘How to look at women’ references past events more directly, including a character who has become a trusted friend of a family he once spied on.
Although (as I’ve already mentioned) the stories share certain commonalities, each one has quite a different feel. Unfortunately I don’t know China enough to be able to say what is down to the author’s style and what is a reflection of the city in question’s culture. But together they show a China which is less sensational, more intellectual than the China which tends to appear elsewhere.
Any Cop?: An impressively deep and varied selection. I enjoyed this (and learnt from it) even though I know little about the Chinese literary scene; I expect those who know China will enjoy it even more. Comma Press has published the same kind of city collections from other regions which I’ll definitely be checking out." - Lucy Chatburn

"Shi Cheng – literally translated as Ten Cities – is a collection of short stories that represent China’s ever-expanding urban population. The chosen authors are described as ‘defining the literary scene in China’, and this translated collection allows Western readers an insight into modern Chinese literature at its finest.
The tales are organised geographically, charting the nation from South to North. Each story offers a different perspective of China’s great cities and the people who inhabit them, with the collection’s exploration of the interior worlds of the Chinese forcing aside any generalisations that may be adopted by a Western readership.
The translations are fluent and sensitive: even words or concepts that have to be expanded upon for the sake of Western readers are undertaken seamlessly, managing to be informative without seeming out of place. Indeed, rather than acting as a barrier, the East-West cultural divide makes the translation of Shi Cheng all the more fascinating for its Western readership, allowing them to experience a culture that is – in some ways – far removed from their own. From the outset of a handful of the short stories, for example Ho Sin Tung’s ‘Square Moon’, a sense of otherness is achieved through the protagonist’s distinction between the Chinese and, as she puts it, ‘foreigners: ‘there is…a foreigner sitting not far behind her’. Throughout the story, the word ‘foreigner’ sticks out like a sore thumb, used as a generalisation that highlights the disparity between the Chinese and those Westerners who, in the protagonist’s eyes, merely inhabit China. Similarly, Ding Liying’s ‘Family Secrets’ reveals a disparity between China and the West with regards to the media, with Ding Liying conveying a Chinese distaste for Western gossip columns, which are portrayed as tacky and insensitive.
In addition, the reader’s sense of foreignness is highlighted through phrases such as ‘You know what those [slums] are like. You’ve seen them’ in Cao Kou’s ‘But What About the Red Indians?’ The Western reader is, of course, unlikely to be familiar with the slums of Guangzhou, and this direct address comes as a stark reminder of the reader’s status as an outsider. Stories such as these leave Western readers feeling at once privileged and somehow included, yet simultaneously bewildered and alien. The reader is allowed a rare insight into the intricacies of Chinese society, while remaining on the outside. The self-consciousness of the reader is akin to that of the tourist, and indeed Shi Cheng’s Western readers can be described as a kind of literary tourist.
While this sense of literary tourism equates, on the whole, to a pleasurable read, at times the style employed in certain stories is problematic. It is difficult to tell whether a Chinese critic reading the short stories in their original language would also find certain stories in the collection somewhat lacking, or whether some stories are simply lost in translation. This dilemma is expounded by the fact that is impossible for the average non-Chinese-speaking reader to compare the English translation of tales such as Yi Shou’s ‘Rendezvous at the Castle Hotel’ or Zhu Wen’s ‘How to Look at Women’ to the original texts, and thus it is difficult to tell whether the translator or the author is at fault. Either way, the English versions of these two stories appear to be a random agglomeration of events without structure or a proper ending, yet also without the finesse of a skilfully written postmodern short story. This is especially true of ‘How to Look at Women’, which reads like the opening chapters of a novel rather than a completed short story. The ending of Diao Dou’s ‘Squatting’ also seems incomplete and slightly anti-climactic, though the main body of the tale succeeds as a delightfully ridiculous absurdist story, commenting upon the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.
In spite of these few problematic tales, Shi Cheng is – on the whole – a well-rounded collection of short stories. The conveyance of human nature and emotions is poignant and at times hilarious, for example in Jie Chen’s ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’ – a tongue-in-cheek story that explores infidelity and female friendships. Credit must also be given to its translator, Josh Stenberg, who uses a tone perfectly judged to convey the cattiness and underhand comments that can form part of the female interior world.
Likewise, Zhang Zhihao’s ‘Dear Wisdom Tooth’ uses the ache caused by a wisdom tooth as a metaphorical device, portraying the key events in the protagonists’ married life: ‘That hateful wisdom tooth you’ve got buried inside you is really me’. The story’s frank and conversational style works well, with the reader taking on a voyeuristic role, and again Josh Stenberg stands out as a masterful translator, able to confer the subtleties of human emotions into familiar, colloquial English.
Other stories, while specifically conveying the lives of Chinese citizens, ring true throughout a number of recently industrialised and urbanised nations. Xu Zechen’s ‘Wheels Are Round’ tells the familiar tale of country folk moving to the city in search of a better life, addressing rural-to-urban migration on a personal level as opposed to as a collective movement. Zechen masterfully captures the ambition and ingenuity ofChina’s urban working classes, while humorously addressing the limitations of the city: ‘everyone… knew that opportunity here was like birdshit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich. From what I’d seen, however, there were fewer and fewer birds in Beijing…’
Han Dong’s ‘This Moron is Dead’ is an especially fascinating tale, in light of the recent viral video that depicts a Chinese child being hit by a car while dozens of onlookers stand by and do nothing. The video and ‘This Moron is Dead’ both raise important questions about certain cultural attitudes in China: in a land which is home to over one sixth of the world’s population, does human life become increasingly devalued and expendable? In ‘This Moron is Dead’, the crowd’s nonplussed reaction to a dead body in the middle of the street would suggest an increased immunity to human suffering; however Han Dong’s protagonist goes on to universalise the phenomenon of emotional desensitisation, explaining that ‘People are creatures of feeling and instinct…We only react to movement and understand what we live through.’ Yet, the dead man appears in all the protagonist’s photos of a blossoming cherry tree on the same street, the implied symbolism suggesting that life and death are inextricable, despite what the protagonist may think.
It is this bold imagery alongside a pervasive element of fatalism that makes Shi Cheng such an interesting and enjoyable read. As the tales shift from Southern to Northern China, the reader is able to witness and experience a variety of micro-cultures, from different cuisines to varying attitudes towards marriage. The majority of these short stories are thoroughly engaging in terms of their attention to detail and highly descriptive imagery. The name Shi Cheng encourages the reader to see China not as a single land mass but as a nation split up into a number of districts, each with their own traditions, dialects and cultural attitudes. Equally, each tale is not so much about the city it takes place in but about a handful of individuals within that city. It is all too easy for the Western reader to become swept up in generalisations, and whilst Shi Cheng provides the reader with an invaluable insight into China, the stories ultimately deal with human nature – that which transcends national and international boundaries." - Debjani Biswas-Hawkes 

"In the 1980s, the word "Cheng"(meaning "city") would ring a powerful and romantic chord in every Chinese person's ear. Phrases like "Jin Cheng" (entering the city), or "Cheng Li" (inside the city wall) imply the modernity of Western life; a place shiny and free, like the gondola of a hot-air balloon floating over New York or Hong Kong. "City" meant beautiful women and money, and everything decadent. As the vast movement of people from country to urban areas reached its height in the 1990s, there was a nationwide hit from a young female singer, Ai Jing, called "My 1997", which expressed this dream of the city. One line, "I want to go to Hong Kong, I want to see the decadent flowery world", summed it all up. In the early 1990s, 90 per cent of the population comprised peasants, even though, by 2007, 93 per cent of people over the age of 15 were literate. Most Chinese "citizens" started from illiteracy; few understood modern technology.
Now 20 years have passed, and the majority of Chinese are no longer drowning their feet in the muddy water of rice fields or whipping their buffalos to force them into farm work. Instead they "jin cheng" – they entered the cities – and became those crazed and anguished denizens whom we find in this short-story collection. The book contains ten rather dark and hard-headed stories, set in ten Chinese cities. They are written by well-known Chinese writers (mainly poets-turned-novelists).
The most impressive story, "This Moron Is Dead", reads like a Chinese version of Waiting for Godot. Written by one of the best contemporary Chinese poets, Han Dong, it's set in his city, Nanjing, an old capital with many maple-tree lined streets. It is about a nameless man considered to be a "moron" but who is already dead - we encounter him lying on the ground. Passers-by place a cardboard fruit box on the head of the corpse and write "this moron is dead" in order to warn people not to trip. Everyone begins to loathe the corpse who basks in the warm sunshine. In the end, a girl turns up who wants to take photos by the cherry tree next to the corpse. More and more citizens gather around to get their photos taken, leaving the corpse lonely and wasted. There are shouts of "Good-for-nothing", as they vent their scorn for the fly-eaten rotting body, accusing the dead "moron" of polluting the city.
A Western reader might ask how a society can become so indifferent towards others, so devoid of basic humanity. But just read the next story in Shi Cheng. You are in the icy northern city of Harbin, about which writer-filmmaker Zhu Wen provides a bleak story of struggling families, dog-like human existence, all under the pressure of money-making. A man's value is reckoned to be worth three pathetic decomposed pickled cabbages.
Set in Shenyang, Diao Dou's "Squatting" is even more absurd. Citizens are banned by the security services from walking around after 8pm. So if you are outside, you have to squat in the street all night to avoid breaking the absurd law. The same goes for the Beijing story "The Wheels are Round" by Xu Zecheng. As a reader, you might think you are in a story set in 1950s China during the great famine, or back in the 19th century when the Opium War impoverished town and country. No, you are in a series of prose scenes, in true social-realist style, but set in contemporary China.
As I was going through each story, I felt as if I was entering a sphere of human suffering wrought in burning fire and darkness. This phrase echoed in my mind: "how the steel was tempered". These stories tell us how the lives of these cities and citizens, or peasants-turned-citizens, are being tempered. The stories seem to say that one has to go through the fires of hell to reach some different stage of existence. The road to commercial urbanisation seems to be a harder one than the road to socialism.
As thousands of millionaires emerge from urban society, there are millions of lowly folk crushed under the wheel of money. Is that the general truth of how we have to build our cities? When I was a teenager, I didn't know who Elvis Presley was, but I knew every detail of the Russian novel How the Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky. In middle school we learned through this book how heroes were tempered: those communists wounded in war, striving through ideological struggle. These were stories for us, young pioneers, to develop our own hard-headed spirits.
But these heroes have disappeared among the rising skyscrapers. The supermen are no longer communist heroes. They are all from America: the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets. Now the Chinese citizen asks: how to become one of them? If you can make 100 yuan by chopping someone's leg or arm off, then take the job quickly since there is a long queue behind you. Think about Russia or China today. How could nations that have gone through such an absolute revolution end up in the same place? Are we really at the end of history? Is humanity to be obliterated by the grotesque greed for money? As much as we must thank the writers of this collection for revealing the world of Shi Cheng, we cannot forget the translators – Nicky Harman, Eric Abrahamsen, Brendan O'Kane, Julia Lovell and many more, who have worked to build a bridge between China and the West. Without them, Chinese literature would still remain an empty chair in world literature." -
Xiaolu Guo

"Each city is unique in countless ways but there is a language of city life, in the narratives of collective living and individual existence, that is understood in any dialect. The Manchester short story specialists, Comma, understood this when they published the 2006 anthology, Decapolis, which featured ten stories by ten writers, each set in one of ten European cities, and the 2008 Middle Eastern equivalent, Madinah. Shi Cheng (which means “ten cities”) is the latest such experiment, with the stories taking the reader northward across China, from Hong Kong to Harbin. Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhua Liu and Ra Page, these stories in translation demonstrate to English-speaking readers that contemporary China’s cities are adequately stocked with the particular and the universal.
This, of course, makes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenyang and Harbin all eminently suited to short fiction, would they but know it. Short story writing (as distinct from its direct ancestor, the oral folk tale) is not an automatic cultural component in the way that novels, poetry and drama are essential ingredients of what a society needs in order to understand that it’s a society, to go alongside systems of government or belief, the means to house and feed the populace, transport, criminal justice and all that carry-on. Short stories develop in a cellular fashion and if you find as many as ten writers in one place – and that place can be a book – working in the form, it’s likely that some, if not all, have needed persuasion and nurturing before trying out the form. Several of the writers in Shi Cheng have more prominent backgrounds as poets, journalists and novelists than as short story writers. This is hardly a new nor an exclusively Chinese phenomenon: in Comma’s 2008 The Book of Liverpool, over forty years after he was first published, Brian Patten’s contribution was his short story debut.
The diversity of backgrounds among the contributors, as much as the geographical spread, gives Shi Cheng a distinctive texture. There is a sense of adolescence about some of the stories here, with Jie Chen’s Chengdu-set Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Lilu a particularly revelatory example. Adolescence, in this context, is a quality of tone and narrative energy within which we can see a radical, transgressive approach but also quite a callow approach to the short story form. The comic timing – in the self-absorbed narrator’s commentary on her frantic but nonetheless meandering dash over to her friend, Kangkang’s, home to facilitate the killing of Kangkang’s philandering husband, “That Fucker Zhao Lilu” – is beautifully judged in Josh Steinberg’s translation:
I left home at 5:20. I washed my face with a cleanser, and then put on moisturiser and liquid foundation even though it was still uneven on my nose. My nose has the texture of orange peel, and unless I spend twenty or thirty minutes putting foundation on, it looks awful. But, for Kangkang’s sake, I had to risk it.
The story evolves through this running commentary, knitting together a three-way conflict, but gives us a lingering image rather than resolution. This tells of a playfulness with narrative, and it’s there also in Yi Sha’s Rendezvous At The Castle Hotel, set in Xi’an, which changes tack like an episode of The Simpsons from a literary take on the All About Eve template of a veteran sidelined by a younger rival, via a murder mystery, to a consideration of the unreliable narrator. Ding Liying’s feather-light yet slyly macabre Family Secrets and Cao Kou’s urgent, colloquial And What About The Red Indians? similarly toy with the set-up, the telling and the completion of the story. The effect is that of writers, collectively, finding their way around short fiction and simultaneously finding uses for this most ancient and conservative form to say something about the China that’s as it ever was and the China that changes by the day. The characters, across all ten stories, come across as hungover from all the changes in their society, and the sense of alienation is overwhelming.
This alienation is most memorably depicted by Han Dong (pictured) in This Moron Is Dead and Diao Dou in Squatting. “This Moron Is Dead” are the words written on a piece of cardboard placed over the head of a dead man lying on the pavement at a Nanjing bus stop. This is satire that should be surreal and Pythonesque but Han Dong convinces us – much like a George Saunders – that the people going about their daily business, taking no notice of the dead fellow human, other than to take precautions against the body becoming an obstacle or distraction, are lifted straight from the street and slotted onto the page.
Diao Dou manages a still more extravagant satire in Squatting which brilliantly revolves around the earnest and civilised, if a little bumptious, efforts of a group of socially-concerned intellectuals to issue checks and balances, by means of letter-writing campaigns, on the way in which Shenyang society is managed and policed. When a crime-fighting decree forces everyone out on the streets after dusk to move only in a squatting position, Animal Farm and the world of Avaaz create a narrative blend that hollows out your laughter as it leaves your throat.
You can’t make this journey in just ten stories and the Damon Runyan-type figures populating Xu Zechen’s Wheels Are Round, Ho Sin Tung and Zhu Wen’s nods to the ethnic juxtapositions at the northern and southern extremities of the collection, and the very dark treatment of love throughout, give a taster of the life and literature there is to appreciate in contemporary China. This collection is a lively primer: This Moron Is Dead and especially Squatting make it an essential purchase.- realtimeshortstories.wordpress.com

About the Authors
Jie Chen is a graduate of the Sichuan Normal University, and is a former cultural journalist. A native of Chengdu, she has written for the Chengdu Evening News, and since 1995, for papers such as Southern Metropolis Daily, the Beijing Morning Post and the Nanfang Daily. Her novels are extremely popular and include Burgundy Ice Blue, Poisoning, which has been adapted into a TV series, and I Love You, Bye.
Born in 1960 in Shenyang in Liaoning Province, Diao Dou is currently editor of Contemporary Review. A graduate of the University of Broadcasting in Beijing, he worked as a journalist before turning to fiction. Having established himself with a collection of poems, he has since turned to short stories and novels.

Having been brought up in the countryside (owing to his parents being sent there during the Cultural Revolution), Han Dong taught Western Philosophy at a small college for some years, before becoming a full-time writer. Dong has been well-known since the 1980s as one of China’s most important avant-garde poets and is now increasingly influential as an essayist, short story writer and novelist. Han’s works include collections of poetry, essays, short stories, novellas, and four full-length novels. His novel Banished! won the Independent Chinese Language Media Novel Prize in 2003, and was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize when translated.
Cao Kou was born in Nanjing in 1977. He is renowned for a simple and direct style of writing, plainly describing strange situations with far-reaching implications. Hailed as one of the most talented young contemporary authors, he has published several collections of short stories, including Fuck, Like the Dead, and More and More. He’s also published works on the life of Saddam Hussein and the history of sexuality in China.
Born in 1966 in Shanghai, Ding Liying is one of a new generation of Chinese women writers. She is acclaimed for the careful crafting of stories that address the lives of ordinary urban women and the underlying tensions in their lives. Best known for her short stories and essays, she is also a lyric poet and most recently a translator of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. She was awarded the Anne Kao Poetry Prize in 1999.
Ho Sin Tung was born in Hong Kong in 1986 and graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a Fine Arts degree in 2008. Ho is now a full-time artist based in Hong Kong, and occasionally writes for newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and Taipei. Visit: http://hosintung.com

Zhu Wen was born in Fujian Province in 1967 and spent his childhood in Jiangsu. After graduating from Dongnan University with a degree in engineering, he worked for five years in a thermal power plant. He began publishing his poetry in 1989, and soon became associated with the Nanjing-based group of ‘Tamen’ poets, a loose affiliation that includes Han Dong, Xiao Wei and Li Hongqi, among others. He eventually left his day job to become a full-time writer. He has published six collections of novellas and short stories, two collections of poetry and one novel. He first gained fame with his 1995 short story collection I Love Dollars (published by Penguin in 2010). He is also an accomplished screenwriter and director: his directorial debut Seafood won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, and his second film South of the Clouds was awarded the NETPAC Prize at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival.
Yi Sha was born Wu Wenjian in Chengdu in 1966. He graduated from Beijing Normal University in 1989 with a major in Chinese and is currently lecturing at the Xi’an International Studies University. His poetry collections include Starve the Poets!, The Bastard’s Songs, I Finally Understood Your Rejection, Out-of-Body Experiences, and Bedwetting. His essay collections include Leading a Life of Debauchery by Force, Shameless are the Ignorant, and Morning Bell and Evening Drum. His short story collections include A Bliss Beyond the Ordinary and Whoever Hurts, Knows. His novels include The Gold in the Sky and Bewildered.
Xu Zechen was born in 1978 in Jiangsu Province, and obtained a Masters degree in Chinese literature at Peking University. He is currently editor at People’s Literature magazine. Despite this pedigree, Xu’s fiction is focused primarily on China’s less-fortunate social classes – peddlers of pirated DVDs, migrant workers – and his spare, realist style lends some wry humour to their struggles. Xu has published three novels, Midnight’s Door, Night Train and Heaven on Earth, and a collection of short stories entitled How Geese Fly up to Heaven. He has won several prizes within China for new and promising writers, and is generally considered one of the burgeoning new stars of China’s literary scene.
Zhang Zhihao was born in the autumn of 1965 in Jingmen, Hubei Province, and now lives in Wuhan. He was chief editor of the large poetry volume Poems of the Han. His principal works include the poetry collections, Suffering from Praise, Animal Heart and The Warmth of Collision, the short fiction collection, Going to See the People in the Zoo, and the novels, Trying to Coexist with Life, The Celestial Construction Team and Where the Water Ends. His award-winning work has been included in several annual anthologies.

Julian Hanshaw - A collection of surreal, comic and mournful interweaving tales graphic short stories. It focuses on the lives of a few nomadic souls scattered across three continents

Julian Hanshaw, I’m Never Coming Back, Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2012.

"I'm Never Coming Backis a collection of surreal, comic and mournful interweaving tales travelling across three continents. In each destination we zoom in on unusual lives and remarkable situations, each tale unknowingly impacting on the next. In Rye train station a woman impulsively buys the same ticket as the man in front of her. The accidental journey leads her to Berlin. A novel way to run away from home. At Heathrow Airport, a building perpetually busy with people coming and going, a traveller is visited by a memory that refuses to leave. A tray of Singapore rice noodles cooked up in Christchurch takes on a life of its own. Winchelsea. A lone letterbox in Britain's only desert is central to a friendship between a travelling chef and a deep-sea diver. An old man realises that time is running out in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Elsewhere an out-of-towner meets a crab at a taco stand who seems to know more than any crab has a right to know. The 'sound mirrors of Denge' reflect more than noise for one day-tripper. And on Johnston Island a man struggles to hold onto his fading memories as his house slowly fills with pollen.Test Match Specialseems to be the only foothold in reality."

"The genesis of Julian Hanshaw's latest graphic novel I'm Never Coming Back began with Sand Dunes and Sonic Booms, the 2008 winner of The Observer/Comica graphic short story prize. From this Hanshaw started working on a collection of interconnected tales, dealing with family, love, death and food.
While some readers may harbour the preconception of a graphic novel focussed on the domestic as something bleak and gritty, these comics instead strike a whimsical tone through a balance of pathos, humour and fantastical elements. Hanshaw's restraint ensures this never slips into the clawing or twee and while being very specific in detail, the empathy one feels for the characters enhances a universality in each unenviable situation. However, hope abounds throughout and much of this is down to the artistry in each panel.
The collection can be read in one sitting and after putting it down what remains in the mind is the way Hanshaw intimates so much and states only what is necessary, the humanity in the characters' faces, and the haunting details of the contrasting small and vast environments he has them move through. A beautiful example of the possibilities in this medium." - Ryan Rushton

"When I was a child, Channel Four always seemed to have late night seasons of independently produced animation. Weird, twisted, sometimes awful, often brilliant, snatches of other people’s imaginations. This was in the days before Come Dine with Me. Before, as a society, we realised that a man squeaking the painfully obvious over footage of attention-grabbing ghouls with clown faces cooking bastardised versions of restaurant food was the best thing ever ever ever and could we please stop evolving now because nothing was ever going to top that moment when Carol from Basingstoke dropped the pavlova and that man, that funny funny man, said, ooh, looks like she’s dropped the pavlova! and how we cried with laughter, how we rofled and loled at that.
Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes, weird and twisted snatches of other people’s imaginations. I’m Never Coming Back is just that. Julian Hanshaw has created a book that exists on the edges of the imagination, in that territory next to dreams. It is surreal in the true sense of the word. In the sense of art that incorporates the dreamlike thoughts of the unconscious mind into reality.
A graphic novel in stories, some no longer than a page, that intertwine to form a whole that never is quite whole (gaps are important here) I’m Never Coming Back is a brilliant exploration of the imagination. Twin boys flying to Heathrow, a man in a deep sea diving helmet who lives on the dunes, a taco stall run by a woman called Errata, crabs, the Test Match Special…
Julian Hanshaw’s artwork perfectly complements these stories. In each section his line drawings are washed in a slightly different palette. His art has the same humour and melancholy as his writing. It also leaves clues as to how the stories interact. Clues that are often missed on first reading. I’m Never Coming Back is one of those comics you find yourself picking up weeks, or months, or, I’m sure, years, after reading, and flicking back and forth through until you just give up and read the whole thing over again. And finding new things.
The most obvious link between all the stories is the absence of home. (Perhaps that is another reason why I was drawn to my memory of those animation seasons and my VHS tapes of the best bits, now lost forever, when thinking of a start for this review.) Hanshaw is not sentimental or nostalgic though, he merely notices its absence in his characters lives and then sees where that takes them. That it takes them to a place where unopened take-away trays rattle with the movement of something trapped inside is a happy coincidence.
Any Cop?: Yes. Yes. Yes. A brilliant, beautiful collection of lost thoughts." - Benjamin Judge

Julian Hanshaw’s I’m Never Coming Back is a collection of surreal, comic and mournful interweaving tales graphic short stories. It focuses on the lives of a few nomadic souls scattered across three continents: from Winchelsea, Britain’s only desert, to Truth and Consequences, in the heart of New Mexico.
It is published in May.
When someone writes about the human condition, the reader is almost forced to contemplate on his or her life. There would be no other way to read that particular book. I am amazed at what is being done with the so called, “Graphic Novel”. The ways of telling stories are plentiful. It also matters what the book makes you feel and think after reading it. “I’m Never Coming Back” by Julian Hanshaw made me think of Home.
The stories in this graphic fiction book are connected and that is what makes it even more interesting and special. Julian takes us across three continents in this book, zooming in on unusual lives and situations which maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
The way the stories are interconnected is also quite out of the ordinary. Each story has an impact on the next. The characters are forever struggling, trying to make sense of things and life as they know it.
In Rye Train station, a woman impulsively buys the same ticket as the man in front of her and finds herself in Berlin. At Heathrow airport on the other hand, a traveler is visited by a memory that refuses to leave. These stories are very unusual – for instance, a tray of Singaporean rice noodles cooked in Christchurch takes a life of its own all of sudden. I mean, who would have thought of such a story? The magical realism in these stories is astounding at times.
The themes that are mirrored through the book are of “loss”, “food” and “travel”, taking the readers from the Coast of Denge, to New Mexico, via Berlin, Christchurch, Tucson, and Heathrow. The stories take on a shape of their own – from being humorous to evoking pathos to sometimes whimsical (an expert crab speaking to an out-of-towner).
Since it is a graphic collection of stories, it can definitely be read in one sitting, which is what I did. The entire book is bursting with imagination, which is not only refreshing but also contemplative. Hanshaw manages to convey so much through the expressions of his characters that sometimes words aren’t needed (anyway they are needed less for such a medium of story-telling).
I loved the collection. The colours and the graphics make it even more interesting to read. I am glad I started the month with this book. I’m Never Coming Back is definitely something that takes time to get into, however the style and graphics leave you spellbound for sure. A must graphic fiction read. - thehungryreader
I’m Never Coming Back is a collection of surreal short stories that border on the bonkers. A few of them miss the mark and left little impact on me but for the most part the stories are wonderful pieces of dreamlike fiction. A particular favourite is the tale of a man who moves to the seaside to run a restaurant where he is visited each day by a man in a deep sea diver’s suit. It’s hard to summarise the story due to its length. But, it’s a great view of loneliness, anxiety and alienation.
Another story that appeals is of a man who seemingly communicates with a crab and foresees disaster that will soon be upon him and the town in which he stays. Each story lingers on desolation and being out of place. Each story tells a vast story, even if they only last a few pages due to Hanshaw’s stunning artwork.
The stories are depicted with the minimal amount of pencil strokes leaving each panel simplistic but effective, even the background to the panels have been given vast amounts of care and attention. Much of the colour palette is muted and allows the emotion to burst out from the bizarre tales. The whole book is a thing of beauty.
The entire book just pops with imagination and draws you in. It’s humorous, smart and distracts you from the mundane – injecting a touch of the ludicrous into your life, even if it’s for a short period. - dogeardiscs.wordpress.com

A quick little post this one to take a look at the latest book from Julian Hanshaw whose The Art of Pho came out about 18 months ago after he had first won the Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize in 2008. I loved the artwork of that book even if I wasn't satisfied by the narrative and so I was intrigued when his latest popped through the door. I'm Never Coming Back functions like a collection of short stories but, as he mentions in this Director's Commentary on the piece, these are 'stories brushing against each other', linked like the various parts of Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Hanshaw again works with themes of 'loss, food and travel' taking the reader from the 'sound mirrors' on the coast of Denge, as featured in his award winning short (which can be viewed here), to the desert town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, via Berlin, Christchurch, Tucson and Heathrow. Again, we are not going to be satisfied by any grand narrative here, these are vignettes, some of which will give more joy than others, but the artwork is again beautiful throughout and the book as a whole has a pleasingly surreal tone.

It's tempting to suggest that the inclusion of Sand Dunes and Sonic Booms, the two-page piece that won Hanshaw his award, only highlights the strength of that short piece in comparison to some of the others on display here. But that might be a little unfair. Another sequence on the coast of Winchelsea provides one of the book's highlights as we follow a chap called Martin as he starts a new job in the kitchen of a beach cafe whilst trying to maintain a long-distance relationship through postcards. It is a local character in the shape of a man who sits everyday on the beach in a deep-sea diver's helmet who provides the enigmatic focal point of this story of communication, loneliness, tentative friendship and change.
There is also something satisfying about the story that takes place in Truth or Consequences which melds dreams and distance with tasty food and human connection. What is also interesting are the different colour palettes in each separate location. As I said, Hanshaw's work is consistently a visual treat; when he combines that with a strong narrative then his work will be irresistible. - William Rycroft

Julian Hanshaw, The Art of Pho,   free online motion comic

Read it here

Sometimes the debate is about terminology (graphic novel or comic), sometimes it's about whether it should be regarded alongside traditional written literature; increasingly the debate for me is about what the most effective use of the graphic form is or indeed how to classify some of its more genre-defying incarnations recently. Winner of the Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize 2008 for Sand Dunes and Sonic Booms, Julian Hanshaw's first full length piece is hard to classify. Perhaps the best way to approach it would be to avoid the temptation to attach a label but the only reason that I raise all this is because something didn't quite click with this book and I think it has something to do with that identity confusion.
A character called 'Little Blue' is dropped off in the middle of nowhere by a man in a red car. He's a funny looking chap, a bit like a cross between a dog and a robot (but walking on two legs - not like Doctor who's K-9. Oh, it's hard to describe, just look below). He's walked to a post and told to count to five hundred. When he opens his eyes he has no one but a large cow for company, so he waits. And waits, and waits and as he does so we see a city build up around him. After causing an accident in Ho Chi Minh City that wrecks a food stand he offers to man one himself in order to pay the owner back. This is how Little Blue is introduced to Vietnam's national dish - Pho.

Pho is a noodle soup and, as Little Blue discovers, each pho stand in the city is slightly different with its own unique taste. Blue throws himself into an appreciation of the art of making pho and it isn't long before he has some loyal customers and a flourishing stand. As well as a narrative the book offers recipes for the various kinds of pho and the different ingredients used. Hanshaw clearly has a great love for the food and whilst he has admitted that he 'nicked the recipes idea from the Kurt Vonnegut novel Deadeye Dick', they certainly add something to a book that doesn't quite satisfy in the narrative stakes. The city is a confusing place and the novel has a confusing structure built very much on the chance encounters of the alien abroad (which Hanshaw once was and whom Little Blue visually represents). Sometimes this means forming an attachment to someone who doesn't reciprocate in the same way and sometimes it means misinterpreting another's friendliness. If most of your friends are other travellers then where do you find any kind of permanence, security or stability? Whilst these themes have some interest they don't make for the most rewarding reading experience.

The artwork however is fantastic. Constantly interesting and innovative, the book's restless narrative is beautifully realised in pages that vary wildly and a format that never gets fixed. The eye is encouraged to wander (and wonder) over the page throwing up all sorts of lovely detail and varied technique. There's also a lot of charm about this book, Little Blue is incredibly endearing, and there is a sadness that grows as the fleeting attachments that he makes gradually fade away. This book may not be exactly sure whether it wants to be travelogue, memoir, cookbook, or fiction but it does know that the innocence of its central character is enough to keep up your interest. And if you're anything like me it'll have you desiring a nice bowl of pho before you turn the final page. - William Rycroft

Sand dunes & sonic booms

The winner of the 2008 Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize, from Julian Hanshaw

 title page image   Julian Hanshaw's site enter   

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