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Opening the River Up to the Sky

Introduction to Ninth Letter’s special web issue on the 2016 Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency

by
Philip Graham




In the fall of 2015 I attended Sun Yat-sen University’s first annual International Writers’ Residency, which brought together fifteen writers from eleven countries around the world: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Egypt, Great Britain, India, Mexico, the Philippines, New Zealand, and the United States. All the invited writers either write in English or have had their work translated into English. This month long residency was organized by the writer Fan Dai, who is the founder and director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing. This is the only such center of its kind in China, and the Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency was a first for China, too. Organized by Sun Yat-sen University, and sponsored by the Lingnan Foundation and the Jiangmen Tourism Bureau, the Writers’ Residency provided a space for a diverse group of authors to write and present our work, while also giving us a chance to engage with Chinese literature and literary translators, Chinese culture and people, and Sun Yat-sen University's faculty and students.

The residency was divided into three parts: two weeks of isolation and writing time in the haunting karst mountain landscapes of Yangshuo, along the Yulong River; a week of presenting lectures and readings at the Sun Yat-sen University Guangzhou and Zhuhai campuses; and one last week in the Jiangmen hot springs region, for more writing time. Wherever we travelled, we met with local landscape painters, poets, actors, calligraphers, traditional mountain singers, and Chinese translators of English. It was an extraordinarily productive and exhilarating time for all of us, to meet so many writers from around the world, and to have the opportunity for such an immersive plunge into Chinese culture.

Throughout the month, two accomplished documentary filmmakers—John Hughes from Australia and Wei Donghua from China—recorded the residency events for a collaborative film they are producing. I began to feel that I wanted to produce an account of this remarkable experience as well, for Ninth Letter, and what better way to do so than to publish the work of my fellow participating writers, some of whom will have their work appearing in the U.S. for the first time? And so, this special Web issue was born.

Many thanks to the Art & Design team of Nichole Best, Amanda Mei, Juliany Nakazato, Madison Ross-Ryan, and Grace Sullivan for making this issue a reality, and for the subtlety of how they constructed the issue: simply click on a familiar image on the main page, and you will be taken to an unfamiliar place. Click on one of the other images, and then another, and you will be well on your way to a bracing whirl around the world. So, keep clicking and read on, if you’d like to take a cab in Cairo, or a raft down a Chinese river, survive a Tuareg rebel attack in a small town in Mali, experience Shakespeare in an entirely new way, or discover that being a “witch” may not be so bad!

Jeanine Leane, an Aboriginal scholar and writer of the Wiradjuri group (one of several hundred Aboriginal groups in Australia), offers “Purple Threads,” a short story that follows with honesty and humor the troubles of a young girl looking in from the outside at the white children’s schoolyard games. “The Sea, the Sea, a touching short story by Catherine Cole, examines the isolation of Australian schools in the interior of the continent, where a young schoolteacher struggles to teach her students about the sea, something they have never seen. Fan Dai, in her elegiac essay “In Honor of . . . ” recalls how four physically challenged classmates were treated during the period of China’s Cultural Revolution. Lieve Joris is a Belgian nonfiction writer who has traveled throughout Africa. While crisscrossing Mali to do research on the cinematographer Abderrahmane Sissako and the blues singer Boubacar Traoré, she came upon a postal clerk in a small village who specialized in personal survival, despite the difficulties of civil war, and he became the subject of her essay, “My African Telephone Booth.” Eileen Pun, a Haitian-Chinese poet now living in Great Britain, is represented here by two poems, “Termites in Our Tuskawilla House,” and “The Armoury”; though different in style and tone, each attests to her great talent. We’re proud to feature four chapters from the lively, bitter and funny Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi, a best-selling novel in Egypt that is considered to be one of the cultural triggers that helped inspire that country’s political revolution of 2011. Madeleine Thien is a Canadian short story writer and novelist, and this excerpt from her novel Dogs at the Perimeter details an artist’s slow harrowing loss of language. Arjun Raina, a leading practitioner of Kathakali, a traditional Indian dance-drama form, uses his expertise to perform and reinvent Shakespearean plays. Here we feature an excerpt from a documentary about his work, accompanied by two excerpts from Raina’s memoir of madness, The Painted Devil, where India’s tortured admiration of Shakespeare is further explored. “The Next Step” is a moving and gripping essay by American writer Patricia Forster about how the struggles of an elderly parent can inhabit one’s imagination. Man in a Suitcase, a powerful and haunting play by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, a Chinese-New Zealand playwright and poet, examines the real-life murder of a Chinese exchange student in New Zealand. An excerpt from the first act, featured here, introduces us to the ghost of Wen Li, the murdered student, who is condemned to reside for eternity in the suitcase that served as his coffin. “Inventory” is the beginning of a novel by the Mexican fiction writer and translator Roberto Frías, whose narrator (also named Roberto Frías) enters into a journey of self-examination by giving long, searching answers to the questions of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, rather than the usual Yes or No. Philip Langeshov, from Great Britain (via Denmark), offers two unsettling sudden fictions—though I won’t say another word, see for yourself. Filipino poet and essayist Ricardo de Ungria offers two poignant and quietly humorous short essays (accompanied by his own beautiful illustrations) on what life was like when the China International Writers’ Residency was located in Yangshuo, on the shores of the Yulong River. Jimo Zhang, a well-known translator of English into Chinese, presents us with his translation of “The Spokesperson,” a poem by Xujun Zhang. This poem, from the collection Rejuvenation (which has been compared to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass), aptly captures contemporary China’s mix of seemingly unbounded energy and conflicted optimism.

Note: the title of this Ninth Letter special issue is adapted from a phrase in Ricardo de Ungria’s essay, “Yangshuo Scroll.”


Philip Graham is the author of two story collections, The Art of the Knock (William Morrow) and Interior Design (Scribner), the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language (Scribner), and he is co-author (with Alma Gottlieb) of two memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds (Random House/Crown), winner of the 1993 Victor Turner Prize, and Braided Worlds (U of Chicago Press). His travel memoir, The Moon, Come to Earth (U of Chicago Press), originally appeared as a series of dispatches for McSweeney’s. Graham’s fiction has been published in The New Yorker, North American Review, Fiction, and elsewhere, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. Graham is a Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and is a co-founder and an editor of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter.