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.

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THINGS WE CURRENTLY LOVE: FEBRUARY EDITION

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, what could be a more stereotypically perfect date to introduce a semi-regular feature: Things We Currently Love! It’s a little peek at the things, from the superficial to the serious, that ring our bells.

Maddie:

♥ TV shows that aren’t about white people. Like most media-oriented young Asian-Americans, I’ve spent the past few weeks anticipating, worrying about, reading up on, finally watching, and worrying about ABC’s new sitcom Fresh Off The Boat. At the same time I’ve gotten into Fox’s record label melodrama Empire, which is both nothing like Fresh Off the Boat and an interesting complement to it. fresh off the boatThere’s the hip-hop component of both, yes, and I loved David Turner’s point that there are two shows on American TV right now about rap music through a non-white lens. But the more deeply felt link between the two shows is family, with kids stumbling to find their own ways in the world and strong, complex, wickedly funny moms at the centre of both shows. (Constance Wu, who plays Fresh Off the Boat’s mom Jessica Huang, had a great interview with TIME last week about her character.) And another thing I love in both shows is the unspoken details: the shorthand in Empire of New York neighbourhoods and “the Nation” and gatherings full of aunts that give depth to the world the characters live in, and the set dressing and throwaway lines of Fresh Off the Boat that make me laugh not because they’re funny, per se, but because I can understand them right away.

milktea dessert

♥ Even though it’s winter, I’ve been drinking as much cold milk tea as I can: meeting friends after work for roasted oolong with tapioca pearls, no ice; picking up impractically-sized bottles of Kirin milk tea at the Korean grocery store, the brand of tea I would buy cold whenever I passed a vending machine in Tokyo two years ago; and daydreaming about the giant pile of milk tea shaved ice with grass jelly and tapioca I had on a really cold day in North York.

dikiThe work of Diki Tattooer, a Seoul-based tattoo artist whose artwork recalls Art Deco, stained glass, 50s cartoons, and high school notebook doodles. I love his minimalist line art works, most of which seem to be no larger than 1cm by 1cm on an otherwise blank stretch of skin, like a little decoration. Their flippant placement (and sometimes content) undermines the scary permanence that Getting A Tattoo still holds, in my mind anyway. (P.S., if my mom is reading this: I’m still not getting one!)

Maddy:

Frozen spinach: I’ve been trying to eat healthier, which so far has manifested in reading many, many articles and blog posts about superfoods. When it comes to actually purchasing, I’m overwhelmed at the grocery store (which would happen regardless of blog posts) and whatever I buy ends up going bad before I can eat all of it. Frozen spinach is the miracle – keeps forever, inexpensive, and very good for you. It’s often in a weird place (frozen food? vegetables? next to the Popsicles?) so it is a quest to find it, but I have. And I will again.

Lush’s dry shampoo: I don’t blow dry my hair, so whenever I wash it, it’ll take the whole day to dry. This is fine, but with winter finally arriving in Toronto, wet hair ends up limiting my days. So for those inbetween days I use a lot of dry shampoo. Lush is too white-savioury for me to be a regular customer, but their dry shampoo is the best. I’m able to have clean hair and go outside in -22 temperatures immediately (not that I want to). My boyfriend also enjoys it.

That weird sandwich my boyfriend makesRye bread, pate, cheddar, salami and bread and butter pickles. You would think it’s disgusting, but you would be wrong.

Eva:

♥ I read The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai in almost one sitting on a weekend in early February. This book is a ghost story but it isn’t really about the ghost, who amounts mostly to shattered glass and blown lights. The novel focuses instead on the living people that populate Laurelfield, the haunted house and former haunted artist’s colony, throughout its titular hundred years. Perhaps my favorite thing about any book is the slow uncovering of secrets and The Hundred-Year House has its fair share of mysteries. Each revelation raises new questions as the narrative jumps backward through time, from 1999 to 1955 to 1929 and finally to 1900 (a “prologue” of sorts). This book is about both transformation and the cyclical nature of family histories and owes a lot to the English country house genre, though it is unique enough to hold the attention of any veteran of the haunted house novel.

♥ I am unrepentantly vain about my luxuriously thick head of hair and, aside from argan oil and air-drying, I am completely dependent on Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair Deep Conditioning Mask to get me through the winter. Unlike most other hair masks I’ve tried, it is applied on wet hair after shampooing and only worn for 5-10 minutes as opposed to an agonizing 20-30 minutes of waiting around to shower with your dry hair saturated with something akin to mayonnaise. The result is soft, smooth hair that isn’t weighed down by any excess oil. It’s a little pricey so I use it only weekly, but it is by far the best hair mask I’ve ever used and it smells like coconut!

♥ I discovered Veronica Falls a little late (they formed in London in 2009) but just in time for my first foggy winter in the Pacific Northwest. Self-described as “horror rock, ” creepy lyrics combined with brooding, sometimes retro, indie pop makes them perfect for wandering in the unseasonably warm but maddeningly grey Washington winter; the deeply unsettling surf rock track “Beachy Head” in particular makes me wish I lived closer to the ocean just so I could die in it at night. If you like guitar-driven jams, The Cranberries, graveyards, Romanticism, and classic twee (think Black Tambourine) you will like Veronica Falls.

Maaike:eline vere

♥ The biggest thing of the past month for me was Harry Kümel’s serialised adaptation of Eline Vere (a classic of Dutch literature, which to be honest I’m only now finally reading). It has its flaws, but overwhelmed me completely with its visual beauty and its engagement, in different ways and on different levels, with so many things that are important to me (not the least of which are my love of opera, of my hometown, in which Eline Vere is largely set, and of uncompromisingly excessive women).

mahal♥ I’ve also been immersing myself in classic Bollywood films recently. I’m really enjoying exploring beyond the (so so good) masala films of the ’60s I was already more familiar with. Last month’s highlight was the eerie Mahal (1949), starring megababes Madhubala and Ashok Kumar; currently watching and loving Madhumati (1958), a very different film on similar themes. I also finally remembered to find compilations of songs from one of my favourite Bollywood voices, Shamshad Begum; this one is my current favourite.

room

♥ Having recently switched bedrooms with my flatmate, I’ve been working on making my new room look nice, a process that tends to take me absolutely forever but which I really enjoy. Taking the time to go through all of my favourite things, finding out how they change the room and how the room changes them, is really calming and satisfying, plus a good excuse to put the Shamshad Begum mix on repeat and sing along (badly).

Erica:

♥ Alice Coltrane, A Monastic Trio:

I’m still adjusting to winter in the midwest, where the sun goes away for weeks on end. Those long, grey days–I forget how to be a person, how to talk and laugh and be around people. I need sun. That’s when I put on some Alice Coltrane.

A Monastic Trio was jazz harpist Alice Coltrane’s first solo record, made the year after her husband’s death. It’s not an elegy, though: Trio is celebratory, weird and gorgeous. Coltrane’s harp pirouettes like a cartoon ballerina, playing against the clarinet, thrumming bass, and drones. Every track is gold, but I’m obsessed with “I Want to See You,” Coltrane’s piano concerto. Its bright notes remind me: soon we’ll have light and warmth again. (Take that, Illinois!)1525904_orig

♥ Queer Zine Archive Project: As I wrap up my last semester in library school, I’ve been thinking a lot about archives and the ways they tell certain (read: white/cis/heteronormative/capitalist) stories about the world.  Suffice it to say, that’s tremendously shitty. Thankfully, there’s a growing number of projects devoted to making sure marginalized voices (including POC and/or LGBTQ folks) find their way into the archives. Exhibit A: the Queer Zine Archive Project. QZAP is an amazing volunteer-run online archive of queer and trans zines, all freely available to read and download. Where to start? I loved Trans Rentboys, an important anthology featuring stories from trans sex workers across the world.

Screenshot at Feb 14 15-57-42

♥ Mastering my Sophia Loren cat eye: The number of Q-tips I’ve lost to Youtube cat eye tutorials is legion. It’s embarrassing. On the plus side, being a winter recluse gives me lots of time to practice my Sophia Loren-inspired cat eye. It’s not perfect, but I’m getting there! Thanks, Stila liquid eyeliner and repeat views of Prêt-à-Porter.

Amaka:11001007_10108139832297714_1956751705_o

♥ “Before July: Demos and Unreleased Songs” by Marissa Nadler: This 5-song set from Massachusets native Marissa Nadler is a real gem. While each track is fantastic, I find myself most drawn to the demo version of “Dead City Emily” (another version of the same song is featured on July, her full length album released in February of last year) and “The Rose City.” “Leave The Light On” is stellar as well, and reads to me like a bleak tale about intimacy, departure, and cautious optimism.

♥ Talenti Gelato and Sorbetto: I have always avoided traditional ice cream in favor of sorbet, but Talenti’s line of delectable gelato is making me reconsider my once firm stance. In the age of deeply personal and lengthy Yelp reviews, it is very easy (and tempting!) to discuss and describe food 11006073_10108139832272764_337335844_nin an  exhausting way, but I don’t know enough about this ice cream’s chemistry to do that comfortably. However, I do know that it is delicious and offers a diverse range of flavors, including but not limited to: German Chocolate Cake, Caramel Cookie Crunch, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, and Sicilian Pistachio.

As a bonus, its packaging has great utility for future uses; its plastic container can be used again for snacks, paint, coins, and much more.

 The “Nightshift” dance scene in 35 Shots of Rum:

35 Shots of Rum (dir. Claire Denis, 2008) explores the relationship between widower Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop), as they adjust to the minor and major changes in their lives. The entire film is a stunning, unassuming study of love, disappointment, and grief, but one moment stands out to me in particular — the “Nightshift” scene.

Lionel, Josephine, and their neighbors Noé (Grégoire Colin) and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) encounter a rainstorm while driving at night and seek refuge in a restaurant. After a brief dance with his daughter in the middle of the restaurant, Lionel silently transfers his daughter to Noé, as the soothing Commodores classic, “Nightshift” plays in the background.

Josephine’s dance with Noé is much more than “friendly swaying” amongst neighbors, and one soon realizes that Lionel has let his daughter go in more ways than one. The moment is wordless, but not quiet.

Julia:

♥ I came across this musical project by Geneviève Castrée and was gobsmacked by the fact that it had taken so long for me to hear about this artist! Her earlier incarnations as Woelv went entirely unnoticed by me, but thanks to this tweet by the always-weird Phil Eleverum, I started listening to this new album and could. not. stop.

She also did the album artwork – appropriate since I only knew of her because of her graphic novel, published by Drawn & Quarterly. It features the two bridges which link Quebec City to the south shore, Lévis. She sings about names of streets and highways I walk past every day, about the ugliness of the endless winters and gravel and ice, about teen angst. Musically, hints of Julie Doiron, Scout Niblett and even a little bit of death metal bleed through this album. If you only listen to one song make it Boue/Fleuve II.

It’s also stemmed some amazing discussions with my Quebec City friends who are 35 and older, who ended up telling me all about the bands who used to play at a bar in the old city which was called “Les Fourmis Atomiques.” Punk bands with names like Les Marmottes Aplatis (the flattened marmots), Les Soeurs Volantes (The Flying Nuns) and WD-40. Amazing!

Galentine's Day

Galentine’s Card from BroodX, Tattooed lady from Crankbunny

♥ Subverting/Repurposing Valentine’s Day

Whether it be a friendly shifting towards Palentine’s Day, or the much more serious invitation to donate to local women’s shelters instead of buying roses, I love the way people are increasingly invited to make Valentine’s Day whatever the fuck they want it to be. I also think it’s a great occasion to revisit what our own perspectives on love and relationships are. This quote has resonated with me for years, and I tend to think back to it around this time of year.

Few people realize how sadly appropriate it is to use Valentine’s Day as a moment to reflect on domestic abuse and violence against women. Since 1991, activists in Canada have used February 14 to mark a National Day of Action for missing and murdered Indigenous women, hosting candlelight vigils, marches and protests. This year, February 13th marked one year since Loretta Saunders was last seen alive. Since her death, there have been other “flashpoint” deaths (Tina Fontaine), violent assaults and attempted murders (Rinelle Harper) that have raised more awareness around this issue in a Canadian political context. Today, the hashtag #HowWeDisappear is shining a light on missing and murdered women, about how specifically Indigenous women are rendered invisible by the mainstream media. Slowly but surely, it feels like a shift is happening, and that gives me hope.

Dana:kiss-GEL-FANTASY-NAILS

♥ When I’m having a bad day at work, my favorite thing to do is to take a little break, walk around the corner to the nearest Duane Reade, and spend a few minutes in the fake nail aisle. It’s so soothing to me, as I forget about whatever bullshit is waiting for me back at my desk, and imagine myself with long, well painted, glittery nails. My favorite brand is Kiss’ Gel Fantasy nails, which are generally outrageously sparkly and wonderful. Occasionally I buy some, too, because what else is worth $9 than being able to have the most beautiful hands?

♥ I’ve been aware of Sam Smith for a while, because it’s currently pretty hard to avoid him even if you really wanted to. But I had never given his music a real chance; sure, “Stay With Me” and “Money On My Mind” are both catchy ear bugs, but I finally listened to Smith’s album In the Lonely Hour recently, and it’s hitting me right in my current sweet spot of earnest, high-emotion, almost melodramatic pop songs (see also: “Pills N Potions” by person-I-always-love Nicki Minaj).

I listen to “Like I Can” on repeat as I’m walking around NYC in the bitter cold and snow, and picture myself on a mountaintop, arms outstretched, yell-singing this song to the world.

♥ A problem I often have with repertory programming in New York is that it’s too serious-minded. Film Forum’s recent Orson Welles 100 program was wonderful, but it left out such highly entertaining, but perhaps not weighty enough, films as Harry 31284_2015_CTEK_Carpenter_Series_Image_613x463Kümel’s Malpertuis, or Bert I. Gordon’s Necromancy, or even The Transformers Movie! Welles may be a serious figure in the history of film, but he was not a self-serious person at all. Which is why I’m really loving BAM’s John Carpenter retrospective. Carpenter is one of my all-time favorite directors; his horror films are truly scary, his action films truly thrilling, and much of his film work is imbued with a humor that is actually funny, but never takes away from the action. This past week, I caught In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter’s Lovecraft tribute, in 35MM, and it gave me nightmares that night – something that doesn’t happen often to me, a hardened horror film vet. Carpenter is truly a master (and I hope he gets well soon!). I can’t wait to catch Assault at Precinct 13 (that score!!), The Ward, and Escape From New York/Los Angeles on the big screen.