#AsiaNow Speaks with Michael Berry

Michael Berry is Director of the Center for Chinese Studies and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UCLA and translator of Remains of Life by Wu He, published by Columbia University Press and recognized with an Honorable Mention for the 2020 AAS Patrick D. Hanan Prize for Translation.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

In 1930 members of the indigenous Seediq people led a violent uprising against the Japanese in Musha, a small town deep in the mountains of central Taiwan. The uprising rocked the colonial forces of Japan to its core and resulted in brutal crackdown, which brought the groups that had launched the uprising to the brink of genocide. Seventy years later, contemporary novelist Wu He travelled to Riverisle—the small mountain village where the survivors of the Japanese crackdown were exiled—to reflect on the insurrection and search for the “remains of life” and their descendants. The resulting novel, Remains of Life, which was originally published in 1999, is a tour-de-force of experimental literature, combining ethnographic research and philosophical ruminations with sexual fantasies and stream-of-consciousness musings.

What inspired you to undertake this project?

I first read Wu He’s novel around 2000 shortly after it was initially published. I was immediately struck by the author’s unique narrative voice, unconventional style, and the world of Taiwan indigenous culture which the book explores. I ended up writing about the novel in my 2008 monograph, A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film and eventually decided to translate the novel. As a literary translator, I think I was also attracted by the unique set of challenges the novel presented, which were very different than anything I had ever previously encountered.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I started doing literary translation while still an undergraduate more than twenty-four years ago and have translated several different genres, including several more experimental works, but nothing can come close to the level of difficulty that Remains of Life presented. The novel is written entirely in a stream-of-consciousness style; there are no paragraph breaks, only a few dozen periods, and other punctuation marks are used in an unorthodox fashion. Wu He is known for experimenting with grammar, so phrases are often contorted and twisted, new terms are coined, and several languages are used throughout the text, including Taiwanese, Hakka, Seediq, Japanese, and English. Sometimes the language contortions that Wu He employs are intended to mimic the spoken language of his characters while at other times it represents the fevered dreams and hallucinations of the book’s narrator. The characters in the novel are not only given unorthodox names—Girl, Drifter, etc.—but several of their names change over the course of the novel! All of these characteristics provided unique obstacles for me as a translator. While some of the novels I have translated were competed in just a few months, translating Remains of Life ended up being a stop-and-go process that went on for many years. Along the way I would often vacillate between extremes, thinking the novel was “a train wreck” one day and a “masterpiece for the ages” the next. But I think those wild extremes are what makes Remains of Life such a singular literary work, unlike any other novel you will ever read.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Probably the most interesting experience was related to my research visits to Musha (Wushe) and Riverisle (Chuanzhongdao) where the novel is set. Normally I don’t feel a need to visit the sites of novels that I translate, but the world of Remains of Life is so unique and culturally specific that I thought it essential that I visit the places where the novel takes place. Over the years I made several trips to Musha and Riverisle and was fortunate to have the author Wu He accompany me on those trips. We strolled through the mountain paths there the narrator took his daily walks, visited the elementary school where the 1930 massacre took place, and quietly reflected as we visited the cemetery. I remember taking note of things like the bricks painted to look like books adorning the graves of the deceased, a detail that vividly appears in the novel. I even got a chance to meet several of the characters that appeared in the novel, including the main protagonist, Girl, who in many ways represents the soul of the book. Girl had heard about the novel but never actually read it or saw a copy, so I ended up giving her my own marked-up copy.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

The novel itself was the primary inspiration and focus during the course of this translation. I did consult some other stream-of-consciousness novels like Joyce’s Ulysses and Jose Saramago’s The Cave, just to think about how other novelists had rendered the stream-of-consciousness form and I did read Wu He’s entire body of work to really inundate myself with his unique literary world.

As for other recommended readings, for Chinese readers, I would recommend Wu He’s short fiction, in particular his remarkable collection Beishang (Sadness). For other works in English on indigenous Taiwan fiction, John and Yingtish Balcom’s anthology Indigenous Writers of Taiwan is a great place to start. For those interested in delving into the 1930 Musha Incident, I would recommend Wei Te-sheng’s blockbuster film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. The film’s rendering of the subject couldn’t be further removed from Wu He’s approach in Remains of Life, but looked at side-by-side one is provided with a fascinating glimpse into the variant ways in which historical trauma is remembered and commemorated.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently juggling several book projects; a book-length conversation with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, An Accented Cinema: Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke is forthcoming in Chinese from Guangxi Normal University Press with an English version under review; an edited volume on the Musha Incident is forthcoming from Ryefield in Taiwan (Chinese edition) and Columbia University Press (English edition). And I am currently wrapping up work on a monograph that explores the relationship between the United States and the Chinese film industry, which is under contract with Columbia University Press. Translation projects include Zhang Beihai’s modern martial arts novel The Last Swallow of Autumn and Fang Fang’s novel about the Land Reform Movement, A Soft Burial. It’s enough to keep me busy for a while.