Last Words: An Interview with Ari Larissa Heinrich

Ari Larissa Heinrich is translator of Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre, released last year by New York Review of Books. Qiu Miaojin was a groundbreaking Taiwanese novelist whose work engages ideas around love, gender, philosophy, and mortality.

Last Words from Montmartre, a series of letters chronicling the intense relationship (and breakup) of two women, is described by NYRB as “at once a psychological thriller, a sublime romance, and the author’s own suicide note.”

Erica and Ari met on Skype to talk about Last Words, Qiu’s life, queer desire, and the translation process.

Erica: Discovering Qiu Miaojin was amazing — I’d never heard of her before. Can you talk a little about how you got interested in translating her work?

Photograph of Qui Miaojin

Qiu Miaojin (via Wikipedia)

Ari: Sure! I’m really happy to hear that you appreciated it. In the past I’ve almost apologized for her work as a tough sell, because it’s so dark. But it’s been so influential, so very important to many people in Chinese-speaking contexts, it just seemed important to bring it to English-speaking audiences. And if nothing else, as an artifact—each reader can be a judge. A reader can decide for herself if it’s just whining, or if it’s really quite interesting. And in general, the fact that it’s generated so much debate and controversy and praise in Chinese-speaking contexts means that, love it or hate it, it’s valuable as an artifact. So for me, the motivation was to bring a really classic work to English-speaking audiences. Qiu herself really aspired to international audiences; her main interlocutors were Japanese and French authors and thinkers, so she didn’t limit herself conceptually or intellectually to Chinese language only. So I saw an opportunity to help her posthumously attain the goal of reaching an international audience, of having a more international conversation.

And on a personal level, I had always known about her; I mentioned this briefly in the book’s introduction. As a fellow queer person, we overlapped a number of times. We never met, but I’m sure we were in the same room at different times because we were in Taipei and Paris at the same times and we were the same age. At that point I hadn’t transitioned, so I was also living mostly as a lesbian, confusing some people when I told them I wasn’t actually only interested in women. [both laugh] And I was aware of Qiu Miaojin in the background as another not particularly effeminate lesbian. Now I would say I’m really effeminate [laugh], but back then I was too insecure about it to actually allow myself to be more effeminate. As a model, she was really interesting to me, because she was smart and politically engaged and an amazing writer and gender-nonconforming, all before there was much language in English or Chinese to describe those things. She was super serious, too, which I thought was sexy. So I was attracted to that idea—there was some part of myself that I wanted to find in her. I think it’s like that with a lot of her readers, really. It’s like she’s an O-positive, emotionally—everyone can find something to identify with. So there was that factor for me, too.

It was such an experience reading those letters. It felt a lot of the time like something I could have written. There was this deep, fearless vulnerability that I kept turning back to. So I really appreciate hearing what made her work alluring to you. That ties into my next question:

Last Words from Montmartre is many things: a series of love letters about a relationship between two women, but also reflections on art, politics, and suicide. It’s been described in some places as a suicide note, since, sadly, Qiu took her own life in 1995. Was it tough to translate something so intimate and complex?

Yes, I’d say it was very difficult. I used to joke that, after this work, the next thing I translated was going to be like, the history of chocolate and joy. [both laugh] So, I don’t actually know what I’ll get to next in translation, but it was hard. I’m not the first translator to complain about having to live with this roommate in your brain during the translation who’s commenting: well, that’s wrong. That sucks, this sucks. I think, as an imaginary editor, Qiu wasn’t too cruel. But the language itself is so experimental, and I couldn’t consult her. She was gone. I couldn’t ask, “Hey, what did you mean by that” or “How does it sound to you if I put it this way?”

I think a lot of readers, because the language is so experimental, in Chinese they go through a kind of translation process to understand what she might mean. So translating to English in that sense wasn’t  all that different from the experience of reading it in Chinese. So that was really hard. There’s no linear narrative to cling to. And the fact that her suicide hung over it—it was confusing because, on one hand you’re aware of the depth of someone’s feelings; you can’t change them, you can’t go back in time. On the other hand, she gets to be brought back to life. It’s a living conversation that happens even after she’s gone, so there’s a vitality to it, ironically. That was interesting. She wasn’t dead. I think that’s also something she wanted, one way or another.

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. It was a strange experience for me. I guess I hadn’t been able to articulate it, but there is something so vital about her prose. Even when it’s relaying deep, deep sadness and distress, there’s this joy of language and expression that you can still appreciate and draw from.

The book moves through and between cultures (French, Chinese, English), languages, genre, sexualities, and genders. How does that affect your work as a translator?

I found I got to engage all of my various—I don’t want it to sound egotistical—my skills. [“No, it doesn’t!”] If I’ve had any training or exposure to things, then it seemed to come together here. For example, I had studied Chinese, I speak some French. I lived in Paris at the same time [as Qiu], I’ve read some of the same things. I was the same age.   Even though it was pre-internet, you could say we were shared the same zeitgeist, so there were some things we could speak to each other about across time and space. And also there’s that inevitable process of exorcising your own demons when you choose a piece to translate where someone shares demographics with you.

One thing I always want to remember is that another skill I developed in translating Qiu Miaojin’s work is collaborating. Because it wasn’t just collaborating with her, as a non-living voice in my head, but also the translation itself, to accommodate all those different cultures that you mentioned. Really, I needed help. It was not a solo effort from the start, to make sure I was being responsible for all those things, from the languages to the generation to sexuality. I just consulted a lot of people over time. At the first stage of the translation, I had a lot of native speakers look at it to get their ideas about what she meant—what their translations might be. Going back and forth with them, I produced a first draft to get a grip on what she might be trying to accomplish—something very literal, given how experimental the piece is.

Then I took the piece to friends who write in English and don’t speak any Chinese. Got some people to contribute some very serious time and effort. One of them was Anna Joy Springer, who writes very interesting experimental feminist memoir. It comes from a first person voice, but it’s very complicated. Her book that she was working on at the time,The Vicious Red Relic, Love, also features characters with complicated relationships to suicide and love and gender, perhaps from another end of the spectrum: the narrator is the one left alive. So I really wanted her insight about the emotional translation: what was Qiu trying to do? Anna Joy’s a professional writer, so I knew the book would be in good hands. I knew she could read it and “diagnose” the book, as in “I think [Qiu Miaojin] may be trying to do this.” She could see things I couldn’t see. After a summer, Anna Joy had great insights and I went back to the original, redrafted it again, and brought it back to the Press. At that point, an editor there, Jeffrey Yang—I want to say I learned English from him, he’s such an amazing and precise writer—he went through the manuscript and did another close reading. Then I went back through that again, double-checking it against the original one last time before we arrived at the work we published. And while I take complete responsibility for it, in terms of any faults, I sometimes feel more like a coordinator of translators than a translator, because it took a village.

That’s really interesting! In the context of translation, I don’t feel like there’s been much discussion about translators or people from specific knowledge bases looking at a work for its emotional authenticity, the kinds of things Anna Joy Springer did. It’s so great to hear about that process—it really seems like a labor, a labor of love.

Part of this is just—trying to remember that I’m not Godlike as a reader. There’s a level of trust there. My respect for Qiu Miaojin as an author is such that I know she’s doing things that I can’t or couldn’t or won’t understand. As a translator, I wanted to put her work in front of people who catch things I might miss. The work becomes more complete that way.

I also really want to pick your brain about Zoe. Partway through the book, we are introduced to Zoe, an extension or alter ego of the narrator. Through Zoe, the narrator explores her/his/their gender identity and queerness. What are your thoughts on Zoe and how the character transforms the book?

I’m glad you posed the question that way. In the end, my thoughts are just opinions, like other readers. Qiu left that very unspecified on purpose. I remember the first time I read the book, I had to go back over that passage several times. “Wait, what? Did she really just—?” There was no fanfare, no introduction. It’s just, “Hello, this is Zoe. This person will be narrating the piece for you. Then we’ll switch to the next one!” It’s like this incredible genderless flight attendant. [both laugh] So it took me a couple of read-throughs to understand what was going on there. Even with my little third-person pronoun magnifying glass, I couldn’t find any indications. So it was kind of interesting and refreshing.

After I’d read the book more, I started to see that manifestation—that figure, when they emerged, even when it was just a fantasy about the future, like “One day I’ll be this person Zoe”—I began to see that the times when the character Zoe appears were the times when the narrator was happy. I couldn’t think of other books—I know there are, but I couldn’t think of any at the time—where the first-person narrator transitions in the course of the text, in so many ways and times. And I don’t mean just gender transition: At any given time you may feel it’s likely the narrator, that it’s the same entity speaking. It becomes clear in the course of the text that it might be female, it might be male, it might be Zoe. It’s still the same person…except maybe it’s not? It really messes with the idea of a singular identity, to the point where you wonder if some of the letters were written by someone else. Maybe they were — we’ll never know.

I sometimes see Zoe less in terms of gender than as an expression of creativity more generally. The utopian quality of being freed from gender [in her novel] wasn’t about gender; it was about freedom. The passages in which that character appears are the ones in which the narrator is describing sublime joy. I can be masculine in my poetry; I can have long, feminine hair. I can do all these things that are paradoxical, but they all fit together in me. It’s not just with gender as the goal; it’s about free artistic expression. Those times when the character is Zoe are the times when Zoe is most productive in writing, producing lots of text. The kind of thing that any of us who write always wish for—that seems to be what happens when Zoe appears. There seems to be a connection between free artistic expression and this character who doesn’t have to pick a gender pronoun.

Thank you to Ari Larissa Heinrich for taking the time to interview.

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