NEA Literature Fellowships

Andrea Lingenfelter

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(2014 - Translation)

Excerpt from “Forrest Woods, Chair” by Hon Lai Chu

[translated from the Chinese]

Once the bitter secretions coating the inside of his mouth became a part of his body, Forrest Woods thought he might be able to forget that bitterness existed. But one morning he awakened from a dream and discovered that the rank and fishy taste, which had been growing steadily stronger, now covered his tongue like a callous. He threw up violently in the washbasin, but the nausea continued to batter him like massive waves, and it wasn’t until he had sat down on the floor and assumed the shape of a chair that everything finally calmed. “I am an inanimate object,” he comforted himself. Holding his breath, he savored the happiness of being a chair, even though, at that moment, there wasn’t another body sitting on his body.

He called his lover on the phone and told her he’d figured out how to break off their relationship. “Believe me, it won’t hurt a bit.” He spoke in the same gentle tone he used when he was missing her.

She was the first person who made Forrest Woods realize that he was a chair. There had been a stretch of time when they couldn’t go anywhere, be it a café, a restaurant, the theater, or the supermarket, because they didn’t even have enough money in their pockets to pay for public transportation. Although the summer holiday had had been going for 100 days already, neither of them had been able to find work that they could exchange for money. At noon, when people on the steaming hot thoroughfares couldn’t see their own shadows, Forrest Woods would walk an hour to get to her house. The two of them couldn’t bear to go a day without seeing one another, even though they weren’t in the habit of cuddling and rarely felt the desire to converse. On the other hand, the moment she saw him, she couldn’t fight the urge to sit down on him. Woods encouraged this new interest, and whenever he went to see her, he would stop on the way to browse at a large furniture store nearby, taking time to gaze at the assembly of chairs with their diverse postures; and every night, in the last hour before he went to bed, he practiced imitating different chairs. At the time, he told himself that chair practice was something he did to improve his circulation.

Nonetheless, on countless free afternoons, he would sit straight-backed in a chair, close his eyes, and imagine that he and the chair had merged into one. His arms became her armrests, his feet and lower legs served as her footrest, and his flesh reminded her of a soft cushion. More than once, she sighed quietly that there had never been a chair as warm and comfortable as he was. At this point, Forrest Woods had been completely unconcerned about what he was; after all, he had been raised since birth to be a human being, as a matter of course. When she pointed out what an outstanding chair he was, he felt unaccountably happy.

Excerpt in Chinese

About Hon Lai Chu

Called “the most outstanding young author in Hong Kong” by a leading critic, Hon Lai Chu writes Kafkaesque tales that are at once universal and specific in their portrayal of life in an unnamed hyper-modern dystopia that resembles Hon’s native Hong Kong. Written with precision and economy, these surrealistic works reflect the sense of dislocation experienced by citizens of the tiny territory, caught between its colonial past and an uncertain future under China. Constantly searching for shelter and meaning, Hon’s characters navigate an ever-shifting cityscape against a backdrop of demolition and construction emblematic of their own existential crisis.

Andrea Lingenfelter is a poet, China scholar, and translator of contemporary Chinese literature. Her many published translations include the novels Farewell My Concubine and Candy, as well as poetry by a wide range of authors from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, which have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Manoa, Push Open the Window, Chicago Review, and Frontier Taiwan. She also composed the subtitles for Chen Kaige’s 2006 film, Temptress Moon. Her 2011 collection of translations of poems by China’s foremost feminist poet, Zhai Yongming, The Changing Room, was awarded the 2012 Northern California Book Award for Best Poetry in Translation. She has taught Chinese literature at UC Davis as a visiting lecturer and will be co-editing Pacific Rim: Perspectives at the University of San Francisco during the 2013-14 academic year.

Photo by Neil Henry

Translator's Statement

Hon Lai Chu’s spare, elegant prose immediately drew me in, and I found myself in a surrealistic world, a place both familiar and off-kilter. To read Hon’s work is to gaze into a transparent and reflective window, where we glimpse a skewed and imaginary place overlaid with the reflection of ourselves and the reality around us. I’m not the first person to describe her writing as Kafkaesque, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

I was very excited when this project came along. Hong Kong has always had a special place in my heart, and writing from the former British colony has largely been overlooked by the rest of the world. After all, its most famous cultural products are action movies. Hong Kong’s rapid development over the past half century has combined with the former colony’s fraught relationship with mainland China to foster a certain anxiety among those who live there. What is a young person born into such a diverse and competitive society to make of it all? How can individuals find their way forward?

The first of Hon Lai Chu’s stories that I translated, “Forrest Woods, Chair,” explores these questions. This story compels us to ask if it is possible for us to maintain our humanity in an era of diminishing opportunities, when market forces threaten to overwhelm and dehumanize us all. The story of Forrest Woods shows just how far one person is willing to go in order to be seen as a useful member of society.

While mainland Chinese fiction has continued to focus on themes and settings that are particular to the People's Republic of China and its historical experience, Hong Kong fiction may resonate more with Western readers. The absurdity of life in the modern world is Hon’s primary subject, and this gives her work great universality. What she is saying is vitally important, and I am delighted that through my translation her work will be accessible to more readers. Receiving an NEA Translation Fellowship is both a personal honor and an affirmation of the work to which I have long been dedicated.