On Monday, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction was awarded to Jack Livings for The Dog, a collection set in China in the last decades of the 20th century. What makes Livings’s stories remarkable isn’t just the tight prose and impressive research (he told the Wall Street Journal that he spent a year and a half reading oral histories from glassblowers and researching Mao Zedong’s embalming process for just one story), it’s that he managed to write about a foreign culture with nuance and depth and not mess it up.
Livings did live in China in the 1990s as a student and then an English teacher, and he obviously did extensive fact-checking (from the aforementioned interview: “I was sitting there writing with an idiom dictionary and two Chinese dictionaries. I would write a sentence and then spend two hours researching whether that character really would’ve said that”), but the real strength and success of his stories comes from something different: a belief in the shared humanity of all people. In an interview with ZZYZYVA from November, reprinted at Lit Hub on Thursday, Livings explained this approach to his characters:
So, on the surface, there’s not much of a connection between me and, for instance, a Chinese factory owner, but I approach that character as a guy who has concerns that aren’t so unlike mine: family, work, money. I’m hemmed in by my own limited intelligence and my understanding of his world, but I’m looking for connections. Obviously there are cultural differences that influence how a Chinese father and I would react differently to our daughters’ disobedience, and that weighs heavily on my portrayal of him, but my approach is to view a character as an individual, not the personification of a set of ideals or normative concepts about contemporary China. This makes it easier for me to navigate those cultural differences, because my character’s actions are his and his alone, not those of all Chinese.
We can see this at work in the title story of the collection, which appeared in the Paris Review in 2005. “The Dog” follows Chen Wei, a husband who keeps making bad—and illegal—business investments, and his wife Li Yan, who has more intelligence, common sense, and strength of will than he. The cultural differences between Chinese and American marriage and family life are obvious, but they don’t make the characters feel foreign. Instead, the relationship between Chen Wei and Li Yan feels strikingly familiar:
Sometimes Li Yan found Chen Wei’s flair for the dramatic endearing. He didn’t have much else to recommend him—he wasn’t rich and he smelled of greasy smoke and he looked as plain as a flap of burlap, but he had shown up at the gates of her high school every afternoon with a flower clutched in his chemical-stained hand. He’d spotted her walking in the market nearby and he said he’d fallen in love instantly . . . Three years later, she still hadn’t figured out how to tell his moods apart. He was strange, but there was nothing wrong with that. He worked for a living. That was good. And in the weeks after they’d met, he was always waiting there at the gate, peering through the iron bars like a monkey at the zoo.
Li Yan and Chen Wei’s relationship feels familiar because Livings unearths the emotional core of it. The tender fondness and tepid acceptance of long relationships, the ways we lash out at and also support each other, the barbed comments, the bitten tongues, the disappointment, the kindnesses, the loyalty—we recognize all of it. Livings finds what’s common to all of us and makes the foreign familiar.
Let’s switch gears from Americans writing about foreign cultures to a foreigner writing about his own. On Monday, prominent Mexican writer and journalist Juan Villoro’s story collection, The Guilty, will be released in the states. This is his first collection translated into English, and it’s about time considering his literary achievements in Mexico and abroad. Thankfully, we unilingual Americans will now be able to experience Villoro’s work through this great translation by Kimi Taube.
On Wednesday, a story from The Guilty, “Mariachi,” went up at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. “Mariachi” is filled with humor and pathos. It mingles serious subjects like homosexuality and the death of a parent with a troublesome prosthetic penis and the greatness of Formula One. But mostly, “Mariachi” brilliantly subverts cultural stereotypes and has a lot of fun while doing so. The narrator, Julian, is the most famous mariachi in Mexico, and he hates it:
My life was unraveling. My worst album, a series of ranchera songs composed by Alejandro Ramón, the hit maker from Sinaloa, had just gone platinum, and my concerts with the National Symphony at Bellas Artes had sold out. My face stretched out over four square meters on a billboard in the Alameda in Mexico City. I didn’t care about any of it. I’m a star. Forgive me for saying it again. I don’t want to complain, but I’ve never made a decision in my life. My father took charge of killing my mother, crying a lot, and making me into a mariachi. Everything else was automatic. Women seek me out through my agent. I fly a private jet when the commercial liners can’t take off. Turbulence. That’s what I depend on. What would I like? To float in the stratosphere, look down at Earth and see a blue bubble without a single sombrero.
Villoro skewers stereotypical Mexican masculinity and the “national prejudice” that is the mariachi while also managing to make Julian a palpable and likeable character. “Mariachi” is definitely worth a read, and we’re sure the rest of the stories in The Guilty will be, too.