Journeys of the heart
Shanghai writer CHEN DANYAN broke through in the late 1990s with her books and essays on Shanghai nostalgia, revisiting the everyday past of the country’s most populous city. The 57-year-old “godmother of petit bourgeois sentimentality”, an alumna of the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa, tells MAGGIE ZHANG why she keeps returning to Europe, her “spiritual homeland”and a recurring theme in her work.
You are focusing on travel literature these days. What have you been doing lately?
My new book, The Land of Caught Dreams, reflects my efforts as a Chinese writer to try to understand Serbian writer Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. I feel the need to stand on Serbian land to really understand a book that has become so vital for Serbian identity and its roots. It’s a very personal and emotional experience for me, as both a reader and a Chinese writer. I feel a drive to travel through time and space to see the making of it, which I call the geographic reading of a book. Another book from the “geographic reading” series concerns my understanding of Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses via my sojourns in Ireland.
How did your travel series start?
It all started in the 1990s when I began earning royalties on my books published overseas. My publisher at the time, in Japan, asked if I needed anything, such as like camera. I said my only need was to read more Western books because during that time the choice in China was limited, dominated to classics such as the works of Charles Dickens. There were not many contemporary books. My publisher arranged for me to visit Munich, in Germany. From there I started exploring Europe and writing stories inspired by my travel experiences.
How you compare your early days of travel with your latest trips?
Thanks to China’s economic rise, I can afford the luxury of long stays in places like Italy. For me, China’s sizzling economic development translated into the freedom to travel overseas with no concerns about money. I still remember my embarrassment when I used up every penny, including some of my €8,000 prize money – which was a big sum in those days – and couldn’t pay for my excess luggage at Frankfurt airport in 1996 or 1997. I was let through thanks to the kindness of the airline staff. Today, I don’t need to worry about such things but I still feel gratitude to the people who showed me kindness during my travels.
You have several books on Shanghai, including the trilogy of Shanghai Memorabilia, Shanghai Princes and Shanghai Beauty. How do these compare with the travel literature series?
If not for the travel series, I might have dwelled on the Shanghai theme and that could have prevented me from making breakthroughs as an author. A friend once joked that if he were a family member, he would have grounded me in my study to churn out more books as a cash cow rather than let me take expensive trips to Europe. My family know that can’t work for a typical Sagittarian like me. Travelling is essential to me.
Do you see the Shanghai and travel themes conflicting?
For me, they’re the same thing. Both reveal how I read and understand the world around me. I don’t feel Europe is a place far, far away. Rather, I consider it as my spiritual homeland. After reading so many European novels over many years, how could it be anything else?
How was your trip to Italy earlier this year?
It was a grand tour and a dream come true for me. I grew up reading European writers, who deeply influenced my world view. As a tribute to those great writers, I took along with me the works of such authors as Robert Browning and Michel de Montaigne, who in turn were inspired by Italy’s landscapes, culture and history. I re-encountered those great authors during my own Italian journey.
Describe some of those unforgettable moments.
One was the thrill of placing my Chinese-language version of Dante’s Inferno next to the original sheepskin scroll at Poppi Castle. I was so moved by this enchanting moment of being so close to this titan of world literature. I never imagined when I first started reading the book as a young girl that I could have such an experience.
How would you sum up such travel experiences?
One day, all the dots of my reading and life experiences connected and made a circle. I felt my own growth even though others couldn’t tell any difference. I know what the world means to me. I can be more assured or relieved when encountering failure – I know I can afford it. That’s the most rewarding moment of my journeys.
Will the latest Italian journey lead to a new book?
I need to do more research and go there three more times, staying for a month in each season. What’s more, I want to make a tribute to senior Chinese translators of Western classics such as Fu Lei, Cao Ying, Tu An and Mu Dan, who guided my understanding of Western literature. But in the end, a book will emerge.