Dorothy Tse tells of women who transform into fish, lovers who sever their own limbs in a battle of affection, and a twisted chess-like narrative of incestuous emperors—a tale that seems to mock the very ridiculousness of the stories we tell our own children.
Dorothy Tse, Snow and Shadow, East Slope Publishing, 2014.
Hong Kong literature inside and outside of the Umbrella Movement, an essay by Dorothy Tse
Dorothy Tse’s stories often start on a note of innocence, but an abrupt twist invariably brings us up short: dreamscapes descend and the pages become populated with ever-weirder characters. Strange occurrences are juxtaposed in ways that confound logical expectations. These stories are not for the faint-hearted—violence and sensuality abound. Limbs, even heads, are lopped off with regularity. Yet scenes can be so outrageous that we find ourselves laughing. Dorothy’s bold narrative experiments leave us alternately beguiled and deeply unsettled.
Dorothy Tse's stories sometimes start in a vein of innocent realism, but she invariably brings us up short with an abrupt twist: dreamscapes descend and the pages become populated with ever weirder characters. Not only do strange things happen, they are juxtaposed in ways that confound all logical expectations. This collection of 13 short stories is not for the faint-hearted--violent and sensual elements abound and limbs, even heads, are lopped off with alarming regularity. Yet scenes are sometimes so outrageous that they make us laugh, and Dorothy's bold thematic and narrative experiments yield results that are alternately beguiling and deeply disturbing.
Snow and Shadow challenges the boundaries and limitations of our narrow, conventional realities and forces us to re-examine our perspective of the world. It is a book that requires bravery and an open mind. But, armed with these tools, many will find that this enchanting collection of transformative tales will, like a shadow, follow them long after the final page. -Amy Russell
A threat or unbelievable angst is always hiding. Acid Free Pulp
Uncomfortable, weird and disturbing…thought-provoking. - Peter Gordon
By turns playful and melancholy, Dorothy Tse's tales never fail to mesmerize: they are wonderfully assured, and genuinely strange. - Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Dorothy Tse's fictional world is haunted by shadows of death and violence. Yet it is hauntingly beautiful. An indelible reading experience. - Leo Ou-fan Lee
I'm stunned by the resolve, accomplishment, and strangeness of this vision. Tse joins the ranks of artists currently remaking the world. - Joyelle McSweeney
Dorothy Tse’s third book, Snow and Shadow, is a collection of surreal stories set in a fantastical version of Hong Kong. According to Tse, Western readers don’t need extensive knowledge about her native city in order to appreciate her writing. “A person’s moods or dreams,” Tse explains in an interview, “may have just as much, if not more, influence on how someone may read my work.” It’s fitting that Tse mentions dreams, since her narrative style is trancelike. This is a book that is hard to put down, but that also requires readers to keep an open mind. Nicky Harman, the translator of Snow and Shadow and the first to translate Tse into English, explains in her introduction, “not only do weird things happen, but they are juxtaposed in ways that confound all logical explanations. The results are alternately beguiling and deeply disturbing.”
Snow and Shadow’s tales are filled with some uncomfortable topics: graphic violence, incest, amputations, abortion. The violence in the stories is reminiscent of pre-Disney, Grimm’s fairy tales, as characters’ limbs fall or are cut off with surprising regularity.
In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife,” a husband and wife compete to outdo each other’s love by engaging in a series of indulgent displays of affection: long-ignored house chores are accomplished, Valentine’s Day gifts are exchanged, and past sacrifices are displayed like trophies. When Leaf accepts her husband's unexpected request for a dance, the couple finally appears to have reached a truce, but they are so physically and emotionally out of sync, that Knife accidently steps on the hem of Leaf's skirt and she falls. Leaf expects Knife to help her up, but instead, he slaps himself on the cheek. When Leaf remains on the floor, and doesn't "jump to her feet and sympathetically rub his jaw for him," Knife is disappointed, but the couple's battle must continue and Leaf also hits herself on the cheek, turning their game increasingly violent. “‘If you hit yourself again,’” Knife warns his wife, “‘I’ll . . . I’ll knock my head against the wall.’ Then he walked to the wall and banged and banged until his forehead went red.”
Plots for the stories in Snow and Shadow are often downright peculiar, yet it's almost impossible not to yield to Tse's confident and exact prose. If the johns in “Blessed Bodies” run out of money, limbs are also acceptable currency among the prostitutes of Y-land, a country famous for its sex industry. The limbs are stored in warehouses and sold to the developed countries nearby. Readers will flinch at some of Tse’s descriptions, which shine in Harman’s meticulous translation. Here’s what happens when a bored, cruel princess from the collection’s title story decides to turn her idle hours more interesting:
Shadow wanted to learn this magic that Snow called “medicine.” So every day she ordered a serving woman’s arm to be cut off, after which she would clumsily sew a pig’s trotter onto the shoulder in its place. But her implants either dropped off as soon as the thread came loose, or caused gangrene. The women gave off a nauseating stink as they walked around the palace, and eventually had to be thrown out by the ministers.
Experimental fiction such as Tse’s is a driving force in Hong Kong’s literary scene. This former British Colony was only handed over to mainland China in 1997, after having been under British rule for 156 years. It is common for an average person in Hong Kong to navigate between languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, other Chinese dialects, and English. In a recent essay for the University of Iowa's International Writing Program Panel Series, Tse explains that in the 1950s, authors from mainland China would often mimic the languages “from the working class and the farmers as a way to reach the general public, yet Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one.” Hong Kong writers not only aim to have their work escape the city’s commercial influences, but they also want to break free from traditional mainland culture. “In Hong Kong,” Tse continues, “writing is never an act that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.”
Western influences are keenly felt in this book. “Woman Fish,” which was first published in English in the Guardian, gives a nod to Kafka, as the protagonist’s wife morphs into a fish.
One morning, he realized that his wife’s sleek, pale head was completely without hair. Her mouth was huge, protruding like a ship cleaving the still waters of the sea. Her eyes had slipped to the sides of her face. Her breasts were two melting glaciers, slowly sinking into her body. When she walked naked towards him, all that was left of the woman were her smooth, muscular legs. Apart from that, she had transformed completely into a fish
Like the magical realists, Tse's writing interweaves the magical and the mundane. Universal laws, familiar logic, or a linear construct of time will not help readers interpret the events in Snow and Shadow. In the story “A Street in the Wind,” Mr. Lam, a widower living with his teen-age daughter and young son, is a fan of detective shows. As the story unfolds, he can no longer distinguish between the fiction of the TV program and his daily life, much like the nameless character in Julio Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks” who confuses his reality with the world in a novel.
It is easy to let reality melt away with writing this elegant and sparse. Tse’s stories are carefully crafted. The language in Snow and Shadow is precise, matter-of-fact and carries no hint of sentimentality. In most stories, readers will find themselves in a world very similar to their own, until an unexpected plot twist transports them to fantastical settings and situations. There is Wood, the protagonist in “Head” who, while visiting his headless son at the hospital, suddenly decides to donate his own head so that his son won’t lead a headless life. The only reaction to Wood’s sacrifice which readers are allowed to witness, is from the point of view of the least invested character in the story, the son’s doctor: “The doctor raised his eyebrow slightly at Wood, but gave a tired smile. ‘The law states that you can agree to donate any organ to a close family member.’” There is also the young boy in “The Travelling Family” who marvels at a performing troupe whose magical tears turn into “bees and centipedes, flowers and grass.” The actors weep and the audience laughs as tears merge into objects, transforming “the street into a brilliantly colored and bustling scene.”
The situations that the characters in Snow and Shadow face do not make them any less human or complex. Whether by donating a head, chopping off an arm, leg, or losing an eye in exchange for sexual favors, turning into a fish, taking refuge in a block of ice or in a department store bed, Tse’s characters rarely grant readers access to their thoughts. Rather than lingering on backstory or motivation, Tse forces the reader to imagine her characters' inner world, driving the stories forward by exploring how they respond to each other. In the face of loss, pain, and helplessness, the characters in Snow and Shadow work with their memories in a kaleidoscopic fashion, constantly reshuffling events in their minds, often walking a fine line between reality and fantasy. “Like many people,” explains a character suffering from amnesia, “I can only remember a part of reality.” Reading Snow and Shadow is akin to being lost in a snowstorm: dizzying, terrifying, but nevertheless thrilling. - Camila Santos
There are a few short story collections floating around the BTBA longlist discussion, but for my money Dorothy Tse’s collection is by far one of the most captivating, original, and intriguing that I’ve read this year or in the past few years. Tse is a Hong Kong writer who writes mostly in Chinese and readily admits that her writing is never an act “that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.” Yet without Nicky Harman’s superb translation, Tse’s style of measured detachment and meticulous prose might be lost. Yet the reader is skillfully led into her surreal worlds, steeped in magical realism and tinged with fabulism. Whether it’s a woman turning into a fish in “Woman Fish,” the ultimate story of psychological gaslighting between wife and husband (“Black Cat City”), or “The Mute Door” about a building where the tenants are in constant search for their own front doors, it’s Tse’s confidence that lures the reader forward, introducing the grotesque, the absurd, and the scatological with such a deft hand and direct style that the reader never feels deceived or that the writer is using any of the surreal twists as a mere conceit.
There’s the feeling of crowded urbanity in most of her stories, the lingering impermanence of reality, and phantasmagorical imagery that offsets the emotionally charged topics of abortion, loss and incest. In “Bed,” a sleep-deprived young girl shares a bed with her father and her older sister and expresses her feelings in a nightmare:“She pulled back the mound of bedding and discovered her father and her big sister had taken up the whole bed. But they seemed not to need those brightly colored pajamas anymore. They were completely naked and tightly embraced, their fingernails dug deeply into the skin of each other’s back. They seemed fast asleep, curled together like a pair of fetuses. No matter how hard the girl tried, she could not pull them apart, and they were too heavy to push out of bed. The girl just had to sit on the floor, listening all night long to her father and sister emitting low groans like an insect makes just before it pupates and the sound is cut off midstream. The air seemed full of butter about to precipitate, stiflingly hot.”
Many of Tse’s stories seem horrific, but her character’s responses are relatable and often touching. The environment and parameters of each story may appear eerie and bleak, but there is always an empathic underpinning that simmers below the surface. The characters are not intentionally evil; they are the damaged creating their own worlds to inhabit. As in the opening of “Mute Door,” Tse offers an allegorical answer for the reader and her characters:“Among all the doors I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of the mime artists that capture the essence of the door. Whether in streets occupied by the language of colonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock—this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, ‘A door is not outside of you.’”
In Snow and Shadow, Tse opens a door for the reader to experience worlds she doesn’t know, but the emotions Tse elicits are familiar. Each story raises provocative questions. Many short story collections can dazzle and amuse, but it is the mark of a quality collection that it also makes one think. - Monica Carter
Fabulous, surreal, absurd. Had this collection been published when Robin Hemley and Michael Martone were gathering their selections for Extreme Fiction (Longman, 2003), a collection of the best nontraditional stories of the modern age, Dorothy Tse, one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed young writers, might well have been among the authors included. Her accolades include the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature, the Hong Kong Book Award, Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award, and many others. Her latest collection of short stories, Snow and Shadow, translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman, is a restrained—bordering on disinterested—dreamscape that spends much of its time in the realm of nightmare. Tse tells of women who transform into fish, lovers who sever their own limbs in a battle of affection, and a twisted chess-like narrative of incestuous emperors—a tale that seems to mock the very ridiculousness of the stories we tell our own children.
Reading Tse is like wandering aimlessly through a dystopian world. In “Woman Fish” we experience the steady transformation of a man’s wife into a fish and his fear that she will slip into the lawless backstreets and end up auctioned off at a seafood market. And yet, life continues on in its usual manner, such as when they go out to their favorite Japanese restaurant:
The chef throws a chunk down onto the white counter. His eyes fix on the gleaming silver knife in his hand, then flicks towards her. He presses the blade down into flesh. There is an odd, sharp hiss as he slits it open. Her lips part, but no sound comes out from between her sharply pointed teeth. Her round eyes pop wide, revealing black centers buried in the silver surround.
In the title story “Snow and Shadow” Tse reinvents the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, outpacing the absurdity of the original with unequaled precision in her attention to warped detail. The complexity of her storytelling will leave the reader tracing the characters out on paper to confirm suspicions of incest and inbreeding in a land where corpses pile in the road waiting to be burned by a man named Dumbo. And Snow is no ordinary princess:
Snow held the corpse of a young girl in her arms, and a pair of scissors in her hand. She had sliced open the skin from the corner of the girl’s eye to her neck, revealing the tissue—scarlet like raw beef—that lay underneath.
“It’s wounded,” said Snow, lifting her blood-smeared face and indicating an animal behind her. It took the serving woman a few moments to make out what it was: a deer with half the skin of its face removed. The woman watched as the princess, with astonishing skill, grafted onto the deer’s neck the resected skin she had just cut from the girl.
When dwarves discover Snow in the forest, they have no idea what to do with her. So they pile animal heads near her bed as offerings. Snow is a vegetarian, though, and nearly starves in their care. When she falls unconscious, they string her up naked in a tree where she is encased in ice until her prince arrives. The parallels to Snow White and the glass casket are obvious, as are the inclusion of a stepmother obsessed with the image of a young woman in a mirror. But the familiar is only sparingly laced into this story of two kingdoms. The rest is a puzzle for which there might be no true answers.
For all the confusion her work invokes, there is something mesmerizing that holds the reader captive. Her confidence in conveying the absurd, as if it is not only reasonable, but understandable that, in “Blessed Bodies,” the men of Y-land would willingly sacrifice body parts for sex until there is nothing left of them, or that birds representing aborted fetuses flood the city in “Monthly Matters,” is enough to propel the reader through her disturbing world.
The hallmark of fabulist fiction is its departure from the expected, and Tse’s work embodies this tradition in every aspect. There are similarities in her writing to Donald Barthelme and his representations of God and religion in “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” which was included in Extreme Fiction. Readers who crave the bizarre—the difficult to make sense of—will find a richness in these nontraditional stories that will bring them back again and again to reread and reimagine Tse’s glorious imagery and subtle references. Our appetite for incomprehension and nightmare is aptly fulfilled here. - Heather Sharfeddin
The opening story in Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse's new collection of short stories is starkly Kafkaesque. In Woman Fish, instead of a giant beetle, the metamorphosis that takes place is of a piscatorial nature. A man wakes up next to his wife to find she has turned into a fish. And this is not the only strange awakening of the book - in Head, a mother awakes to find that her son's head has disappeared overnight.
But the surrealism in Tse's collection is far from macabre. Instead, the bizarre tales of sexual exploitation, family dynamics and intimate relationships present a charming and vividly magical world. A dreamlike quality pervades these pages, as we accept such strange and disturbing imagery in each story, then slip into another alternate reality that is just as odd.
As translator Nicky Harman writes in the book's introduction: "These surreal tales - fantastic in parts - are made the more effective for being grounded firmly in reality at the same time."
It is this juxtaposition that makes Tse's writing so effective, and its themes all the more frightening, yet captivating.
Familiar glimpses of Hong Kong sit within the book's tales of twisted realities (where the logical solution to a missing limb is to replace it or match it with one of your own), adding to the paradoxical feeling of simultaneous discomfort and enticement.
A winner of multiple literary awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tse envelops her readers in obscurity through bold, imaginative and artfully spare prose. Taut and unsentimental it may be, but the reader will find it hard not to be intrigued by the characters and their circumstances - even if we only know them as "K" or "J". This just adds to their elusive appeal.
Tse's stories are both "beguiling and deeply disturbing", writes Harman, who plays no small part in contributing to their mesmerising quality through her fluid translation. Harman captures the cadence and nuances of Tse's writing, imbued with dark humour and violence.
Snow and Shadow challenges the boundaries and limitations of our narrow, conventional realities and forces us to re-examine our perspective of the world.
It is a book that requires bravery and an open mind. But, armed with these tools, many will find that this enchanting collection of transformative tales will, like a shadow, follow them long after the final page. - Amy Russell
For surreal fiction to work, the writer must have confidence. No matter how fantastic the images and situations, it always comes back to confidence. The reader should not sense the author’s doubt in either prose or content. The best works of magical realism flood forward on the page like an endless ribbon being pulled, and this is so apparent in Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse’s newest short story collection, Snow and Shadow.
Each story is constructed out of “cool sentences,” as translator Nicky Harman notes in her introduction to the collection. Tse is not concerned with ornamental language, and the reader is lulled forward with prose free of stuffy word choices, leaving an exactness that evokes a world sometimes similar to our own, which then becomes a world populated with often nightmarish scenarios.
Almost all of the stories are set in some sort of urban space: tightly packed apartment buildings, hospitals, busy streets. It is only the final and titular story, “Snow and Shadow,” that finds itself apart resting in a world concerned with emperors, imperial guards and the like. But the story still feels consistent with the other stories, for it does not escape Tse’s fantastic eye.
Instead of expected and ordinary names, Tse calls her characters Tree, Leaf, Knife, Wood, Recall, Memoria, or the more Kafkaesque, K and J, shifting focus from the specificity of names. They are all individuals, but it is often less about them and more about how they relate to other characters, with many of them offered as dichotomies or reactions to others. In “Head,” a family awakens to the mysterious disappearance of the son’s head. Like all good magical realism, the story is not about the explanation of the circumstances, but how the world operates within these fantastic terms. The images are stark right from the beginning as the son, Tree, is led to an ambulance, headless, not at all an unusual predicament in Tse’s stories.
Hospital beds and wheelchairs whizzed back and forth, many of them occupied by patients who had lost noses, limbs, hearts, and other organs…he came to a decision: he would donate his own head to his twenty-five-year-old only son.
The father, Wood, donates his own head, transforming the story into an examination of a father’s passion for his son without abandoning the more surreal elements. What we get is a pseudo-family history going back before the birth of Tree in 1977. Wood becomes obsessed with his unborn child, often drawing his wife with the shape of a fetus growing inside her. When asked who he is drawing, he pulls out a photograph of himself and says, “I’m using this. That kid’s going to be the spitting image of me.” This statement is a familiar one between parents and children, but it becomes bizarre in the capable hands of the author. The transplanted head still retains the face of the father. It is not quite grotesque, because it is encapsulated in a magical realistic world, but it could be argued that it is toeing the line.
Not all thirteen stories of Snow and Shadow are composed of lopped off heads and transformed bodies. Some are dreamlike and give the feeling of a hand running through water leaving swirls and ripples around it. “The Mute Door” recalls non-existing doors that mimes construct out of waves of their hands in the air: The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. The idea is introduced so aptly and can be applied not only to the story, but to the collection as a whole. Smells, emotions, and occurrences are identifiable in Snow and Shadow, yet they reside in a dream—or nightmare, in some cases. A pizza delivery man is labelled a stranger when he comes to the Displacement Apartments in “The Mute Door,” but like the residents, once he enters the building, he can’t quite find the right door. Reminiscent of Kafka’s unbreached castle, the apartment building is so perfectly name Displacement and no matter how hard they try, the residents just can’t find their way to the correct front doors. Many even pack suitcases to take with them whenever they leave home, so upon their return when predictably they are unable to find the correct door, they have novels and laptops to keep them company in the bustling corridors.
[F]or the residents, the apartments are like face-down playing cards on a table top, moving around, taking their doors with them, in a completely random way. That is to say, when the residents leave their apartments, they have to go through the process of finding them once more, with no rules to follow.
Like the residents of the Displacement Apartments, there are no rules to Snow and Shadow. The unexpected is king and explanations are uncalled for. Turning into a fish or actors’ tears becoming bees and centipedes are par for the course. Lovers might hack off their own limbs for each other, but I would have it no other way. Their wounds linger on the reader’s mind like thick brush strokes.
Nicky Harman does an excellent job translating Tse’s stories. They stand alone, but together build a hypnotic trance, each sentence rendered with a sense of grace and sparseness. The images and actions are left on their own, not muddied by a heavy hand.
The stories within Snow and Shadow build on each other with every new page. They are blunt, stark, and nightmarish, and this is what makes them all so exquisite. Through Harman, Dorothy Tse’s collection manifests an individual voice in a world overflowing with the unexpected. - Ariell Cacciola
Q&A with DorothyCan you envision the ideal reader of your fiction—in terms of background, education level, tolerance for gruesome imagery, or any other traits you think matter? Stated otherwise, what attributes does a reader need to have to fully appreciate and understand what you are communicating in Snow and Shadow?
One of the privileges of being a writer is that you don’t have an audience in front of you as you write. I don’t want to sacrifice this freedom by imagining an actual reader. Plus, any reader that I can imagine will never be as creative and complex as the actual readers I may have.
Which eastern and western authors do you consider to be your primary influences?
I do not distinguish between Eastern and Western authors. When I was young, I liked reading fairy tales from anywhere—sometimes stories in the Bible gave me a similar kind of enjoyment. But my formal consciousness came from reading mainland fiction writers who exploded on the scene in the 1980s. After mainland China had had a closed-door policy for decades, these Chinese writers were influenced suddenly by writers from around the world, such as Kawabata, Márquez, and Kafka. The subsequent formal experiments by these Chinese writers felt like looking into a kaleidoscope.
When you write plots or scenes that seem to depart from conventionally-understood reality—for example, the woman who turns into a fish in “Woman Fish”—are you envisioning these fantastic events as literally occurring, symbolizing a general concept, or both?
I don’t regard my stories as departing from conventionally-understood reality. I think humans are adapting and transforming themselves in radical ways. If we can eat meat made in a science lab, then it’s possible for a woman to change into a fish.
Which of the stories did you have the most difficulty writing and why?
Each story was difficult to write in its own way. If I find a story is “easy” to write, I would think it’s probably because I am following some kind of established convention, or a convention that I’ve developed myself. It’s a signal that I am going down a dangerous path.
What are one or two essential things Western readers should understand about modern life in Hong Kong that will help them to appreciate your writing?
I don’t think that having an experience of living in Hong Kong means that one would understand a writer from Hong Kong. Most of the time, a writer is an outsider in his or her own culture. There are qualities that are more important than nationality or identity that inform how a reader understands literature. I think a person’s moods or dreams may have just as much, if not more, influence on how someone may read my work.
Now that you have written two collections of short stories, do you have any plans to write longer-form fiction like a novel? What do you like and dislike about the short story format?
I am working on a novel right now. I think of a short story like a puzzle with a lot of small pieces, so you can play with the structure by looking at the entire picture. But the novel is too big to visualize—it’s more like digging deeper and deeper into a tunnel.
Dorothy Tse is one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed young writers. Her short story collection So Black (好黑) won the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature in 2005 and A Dictionary of Two Cities (雙城辭典), which she co-authored with Hon Lai-chu, won the 2013 Hong Kong Book Prize. Her literary prizes also include Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award and the Hong Kong Award for Creative Writing in Chinese. She was a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2011. A co-founder of Hong Kong’s preeminent literary magazine, Fleurs des Lettres, she currently teaches creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.