Whatcha Reading, Austin Woerner?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Austin Woerner is a Chinese-English literary translator. In addition to Su Wei's novel The Invisible Valley, just out from Small Beer Press, he has translated two volumes of poetry, Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe, and Ouyang Jianghe's book-length poem Phoenix. Formerly the English translation editor for the innovative Chinese literary journal Chutzpah!, he also co-edited the short fiction anthology Chutzpah!: New Voices from China. He holds a BA in East Asian Studies from Yale and an MFA in creative writing from the New School, and is currently a lecturer at Duke Kunshan University just outside of Shanghai. He's appearing tonight at Elliott Bay Books to talk about The Invisible Valley.

What are you reading now?

I've been rereading Waiting by Ha Jin. While I was translating The Invisible Valley I actually steered away from fiction set in China, because I wanted to develop my own ear for how to evoke a Chinese cultural setting in English. (I guess you could call it "reinventing the wheel.") But now that I actually live in China, I'm more and more fascinated by Chinese emigrant writers like Ha Jin and Yiyun Li, who write in English about experiences they had back in China in more or less the same time period as The Invisible Valley is set. (And in such beautiful English! As an EFL writing teacher I'm in awe of people who develop a fine literary style in a foreign language.)

What I like about Waiting is the way its main characters feel so real, their emotions so relatable, despite the fact that their culture and life circumstances are so vastly different from the novel's intended readers. At the same time, living in China has given me an appreciation for certain dimensions of their experience I wouldn't have understood well before. Back in the Maoist era people had such little latitude to make decisions about their own lives. So the story's drama takes place in the tiny range of motion available to them. Obviously things've changed a lot since then, but some things still resonate.

What did you read last?

Over the past year I've been dipping in and out of Jonathan Spence's Return to Dragon Mountain. Spence recreates in novelistic detail the life and times of Zhang Dai, a Ming-dynasty aesthete and man of leisure known for his gem-like prose essays. Zhang's world is the that of the "scholar gentry" of the lower Yangtze delta, a privileged elite who passed their days in painting, poetry, tea connoisseurship, and other charmingly frivolous-seeming hobbies. Zhang famously said, "A man with no excesses is not worth befriending," and Spence conjures Zhang's character through his obsessions: finding the perfect springwater to brew the perfect cup of tea, directing amateur operas, inventing witty taxonomies to categorize the different kinds of people who go boating on West Lake in Hangzhou, and so forth.

Though it's easy to laugh off Zhang's pastimes as the dissipations of a silk-slippered aristocrat, it's not hard to see parallels to our contemporary era of abundance. When your basic needs are already amply met, what do you do with your time to give meaning to your life? (Later, when the Ming dynasty fell, his family would lose everything, and that foreknowledge lends his reminiscences the air of an elegy for a lost world.) The area where I now live and teach is more or less Zhang's home turf, and though the freeways and freight barges and endless factories of the modern-day Yangtze delta are a far cry from Zhang's pleasure boats and gardens, I feel like Zhang's spirit hovers over them still.

What are you reading next?

This summer, taking The Invisible Valley on tour in the U.S. has given me the opportunity to meet many new literary friends and reconnect with old ones, and their books are now weighing down my China-bound suitcases. A few I'm especially excited to read are The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, and State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang. You should check 'em out too!