A short story collection can be a great vehicle for showcasing different styles and forms, and so it is with Yan Ge’s Elsewhere, the English-language debut from an award-winning Chinese writer whose work has been published in a number of Irish literary journals and anthologies. Born in Sichuan, Ge lived in Ireland for a number of years but is currently based in Norwich, where she completed an MFA at the University of East Anglia and was the recipient of the UEA International Award 2018/2019. Other accolades to date include the Mao Dun Literature Prize and being named by People’s Literature magazine as one of 20 future literature masters in China.
There is an impressive range to the nine stories in her collection. Settings vary from contemporary New York, London, Sweden, Dublin, China in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake, or that country centuries earlier, amid power games and political machinations at court and among the disciples of Confucius. It’s a lot of material for a relatively short number of stories but for the most part Ge handles the shifts skilfully, with nimble changes in tone, pace and style that reflect the broad scope of her stories.
Elsewhere is a collection of depth and dimension. The spare, limpid prose style in many of the stories allows for moments of strong emotional impact, such as the stunning second story, Shooting an Elephant, which charts the listless, lonely months of a newly married Chinese woman, Shanshan, who is trying to put down roots in Dublin with her Irish husband. After a trauma on their honeymoon in Burma, there is a disconnect in the marriage: “They were like two comets chasing each other in circles, sometimes getting closer, yet always light years apart.” There is a palpable sense of loss and longing as Shanshan moves around the north inner city, pining for her mother, pining for home. She strikes up a friendship of sorts with a shop assistant who has a Chinese tattoo. The guy thinks it means “home” but an errant dot changes the meaning to “grave”.
These little touches are everywhere in Elsewhere. Language is a central focus, miscommunications abound, adding to the isolation and dispossession of Ge’s characters. A Chinese couple decides to only speak English around their baby. People watch a foreign film with no subtitles. Characters assume new names to fit in with their adopted cultures. Ge is interested in outsiders, marginalised individuals trying to assimilate. The protagonist of No Time to Write, Cliona, was brought up in a peripatetic household. Now a jobless and directionless woman in her 20s, she explains, “Years of relocating and dislocating have injured each one of us in this family. Everyone except my little brother Ian. Ian lives in Porto with his girlfriend Sara and is as happy as a goldfish.”
This quote is indicative of Ge’s style generally: quietly momentous realisations about the human condition that are often underlined or undercut with dry humour. In the opening story, The Little House, first published in The Stinging Fly, the protagonist loses her virginity to her friend Six Times in the middle of an earthquake. Afterwards, he tries to clean up the mess: “I told him I would prefer to have dried sperm on my belly than cold beer and the filth from his socks. He said he was sorry.” In the story Stockholm, a writer describes her work: “Mainly about small towns in China, I said. The unspeakable natures of their residents. Gossiping, bickering, pilfering and fornication. Basically, a bunch of faithless people indulging in petty crimes.” Other stories have a noted playfulness to some of the stylistic decisions. The couple’s happiness in Shooting an Elephant may depend on the outcome of the Slab Murphy court case. Centuries old Confucian monks speak in modern Irishisms: “Ah for f**k’s sake ... You will in your hole.”
This story, Hai, closes the collection and accounts for almost one-third of its length. While the period detail, philosophical insights and depiction of power mongering among the supposedly noble Confucian brothers are all well done, there is a marked lack of momentum, a tediousness creeps in as the story continues, which seems a strange way to finish such a vibrant and beguiling collection.
It is a minor off-note in an otherwise major publication. Ge’s work has been translated into a number of languages and it’s easy to see why. Whether she’s concocting surreal tales of immigrants in New York or giving a painstakingly vivid account of a writer and new mother pumping her breastmilk at a literary festival in Stockholm, there is a universality and perspicacity to her writing, an understanding of what matters. As another writer on the panel at the literary festival notes, “To narrate is to make choices, to cut out the insubstantial and to inaugurate order.”