Review | The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, Yan Ge | Book of the Week

Chilli bean paste was big business, had been for Gran’s family for four or five generations. Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, were the sort of thing any small trader could sell. All they needed was a place to set up their stall. But, humble though the trade was, the Sichuan pepper was as essential as chilli bean paste at all Pingle Town dinner tables [. . .] Dad had kicked around the chilli bean paste factory for over twenty years, learning the ins and outs of his trade under the tutelage of his shifu, Chen, and if it had taught him one thing, it was that people were born to sweat. You ate chilli bean paste, and Sichuan peppers, and ma-la spicy hotpot, to work up a good sweat, and screwing a girl made you sweat even more. The more you sweated, the happier you felt, Dad reckoned. He remembered the fiery heat that the sweat-soaked bed-sheets in Baby Girl’s house gave off.”

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a rags-to-riches tale about a small-town Chinese family’s survival following on from China’s rapid industrial revolution during Mao Zedong’s rule, and the later economic turmoil of the 1990s. Economic growth entailed a rise in social corruption in all areas of life along with social alienation and a breakdown in moral values.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is in the tradition of the neighbourhood novel – a kind of literary soap. The big three authors of the genre are Naguib Mahfouz, William Faulkner and Vasco Pratolini (who did for Florence in the 1940s what Elena Ferrante has done for Naples today; Pratolini became a screenwriter, collaborating in films such as Paisà by Roberto Rossellini, Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti and Le quattro giornate di Napoli by Nanni Loy.)

A Loving Family

Widowed matriarch, May Xue, is the archetypal grandmother of olden times who loves her family with steely resolve, an overriding concern with social status, and much meddling. She is the owner of the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory which is run by her youngest son, Shengqiang. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, is away at university being a brilliant Professor while his sister Coral Xue – the family peace-maker – lives in the big city with her family and is a successful TV news presenter. Narrated by Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and Anqin, the tone is warm, sharp-eyed and irreverent.  

Shengqiang endured a harsh apprenticeship in the factory stirring the vat of chilli bean paste while his brother went off to university, but now in his forties he is very successful. Money is everything to him – as are regular sex, food and getting drunk with his friends since they make him feel good about himself. His wife is “the only woman in Pingle Town who is fortunate enough to have found a husband as rich and as generous as Dad.” Anqin plays mah-jong, reads novels, goes shopping using her husband’s credit cards and turns a blind eye to his succession of mistresses, until one falls pregnant . . .

Shengqiang was close to his older brother Zhiming when growing up, since “he got good marks, he could play snooker and he could pull the girls, [. . .] and was the coolest dude in Pingle Town.” But after Zhiming screwed Baby Girl in the notorious red light district, an intense rivalry had developed and intensified over time.

As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to plan a great celebration for her. Zhiming takes over organising of the event, reminding his brother Shengqiang that, “We’re the Duan-Xue family. It’s got to be grand, and really classy, but it mustn’t be tacky. The Prince’s Mansion Hotel or whatever, that’s fine, but getting signers along is just a way of throwing money around! The Duan-Xue family’s not like other families. Pingle townsfolk are really uneducated, right? . . . They just do things so-so . . . We’re going to make this a very grand occasion indeed.

Secrets and Lies

Since Grandad’s death, Shengqiang has been the head of the family, a role which he fills with alcohol-and-nicotine-fuelled capability and underlying irritation. He sets up his mistress Jasmine in an apartment in the same block as his mother, and helps out his brother in law, Liu, when he gets a mistress on the quiet. “That day, like a proper head of the family, he got out the keys and gave them to Uncle Liu. ‘I’ve paid six months’ rent in advance,’ he told him. ‘Now it’s down to you’.” Shengqiang does this despite his action being a betrayal of his sister; he realises that “this was the worst thing he had done to a woman in his whole life.

Debilitating secrets gradually emerge as preparations are made to hold Gran’s birthday celebration in the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory yard; programming all manner of festivities entails the involvement of various locals. As tensions build, Shengqiang feels increasingly put upon. His internal monologue comprising lurid thoughts and rude comments – indicative of his emotional immaturity – is both hilarious and bordering on the tragic since on the surface he continues to be the usual compliant son and brother. His frustration boils up to a fever pitch.

It turns out that Gran’s ruthlessness in furthering the family fortunes meant that she forced arranged marriages on her children. As skeletons rattle out of the closet, even she is not immune to the embarrassment of past misdemeanours coming to light.

Gentrification – Chinese-style

The dynamic tension of the Duan-Zue clan mirrors China as it enters the modern era. The fictional protagonists navigate the distinct social and economic peregrinations of where they live; with the neighbourhood playing a central role. The narrative is littered with references to limousines, hostesses, brothels, the County Party Committee, new apartment blocks, the single-child policy, Chinese Mandarin vs. Sichuan dialect, and other tidbits affording insights into Chinese life – as well as food glorious food! I felt increasingly hungry as I read: Sichuan cuisine is delicious, hot and spicy.

pingle ancient town yan geThere were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000, or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the buckets of paint, and all the buildings on, and off; the four main roads were covered in white paint. They looked like they’d been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, chilli turnips and spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes, riceflour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar, even the scissor-menders and knife-grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished. The few souls that remained retreated into their shells like tortoises and made do with shopfronts as narrow as the gap between your front teeth.”

A curse of capitalism the world over is the homogenising effect of gentrification: towns and neighbourhoods that are cleaned up means that the eccentrics, creatives and impoverished misfits are swept away out of sight and out of mind. This is a global phenomenon: from Ladbroke Grove W10 to The Marais in Paris and the Lower East Side in Manhattan – as in a small town near Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Money makes the world go around  . . .

Nicky Harman’s dignified, pacey, idiomatic translation featuring colloquialisms and colourful insults radiates erudite energy, drawing the reader into a world of muddle and intrigue, blending farce and nostalgia.

Yan Ge was a Chinese literary sensation age seventeen, and has twelve young adult books to her name. She is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of a trilogy of adult fiction: what will happen next in Pingle Town, Sichuan Province?   

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman | Balestser Press 13.99GBP 18.99 USD trade paperback 270pp | ISBN 978 1 911221227 | Winner English PEN award

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Interview | Yan Ge | Author of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in a small town outside of Chengdu, a major city in the southwest of China. And I grew up there. As a teenager, all I wanted was to get out of this place, this muddy, tiny, sleepy town. Years later, when I actually left and lived in Ireland, all I wanted is to go back and to live in the small town where I spent my adolescence. That small town has been lost. It has changed so much. There have been lots of constructions, new buildings, the industrial and high-tech parks and tones of immigrants. The government renamed it last year, making it a district of Chengdu city. My hometown is officially being archived in the history book — there’s no way I can go back now. So I write about it all the time in my stories.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
Both of my parents were Chinese teachers so we have a sizeable collection of Chinese classics, contemporary Chinese fiction, and translated books. I can’t remember I read The Journey to the West for how many times. And I cried a lot when I read Su Tong’s books as a teenager. My parents love Russian writers and I read Gogol and Gorky with them.

Continue reading Interview | Yan Ge | Author of the Week

BookBlasts® | Top Ten Reads for Independent Minds | May 2018

Just back from a break in Patmos, a paradise in the Aegean Sea, hence our May top 10 indie reads going up at the eleventh hour . . . The indie publishers of today are often compared to the indie record labels of yesteryear, so to enjoy total immersion in the wild and wonderful world of musical entrepreneurship, my perfect beach read was Taking Leave by island resident Jeremy Thomas (Timewell Press, 2006) — a first novel about “the record business and lives hilariously out of control,” as A. L. Kennedy put it. Stephen Fry had this to say, “Jeremy Thomas is a complete original. His writing, like his life, is a whirlwind of brilliance, wonder and  blunder, by turns hilarious and terrifying. Highly recommended.”  

Our May reads take in West China, the coastline of North West England, the Caribbean coastline of Colombia, Latvia, Liberia, Slovakia and Palestine.

@BalestierPress @Ofmooseandmen @Carcanet @CharcoPress @commapress @GalleyBeggars @hoperoadpublish @istros_books @PennedintheM @SaqiBooks Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top Ten Reads for Independent Minds | May 2018

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | March 2018

Here is our scrapbook of top 10 reads for March featuring new books from Kurdistan, Croatia, Tashkent, Latvia, the Caribbean, Iceland, Mexico, Kenya, and last but not least, England. Here at BookBlast® HQ we love translation! This year’s Translation Prizes were awarded by the Society of Authors at the British Library, in recognition of outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, Interlink are celebrating women’s voices and actions throughout the month. They are giving a free gift book with every purchase of an Interlink book written by a woman. With every order you place, you will receive a surprise gift (a novel, a cookbook, a memoir, or a history book) selected by an Interlink staff member to suit your taste (one book per order valued at $15 to $30). Just visit one of the following websites: www.interlinkbooks.com www.immigrantcookbook.net www.soupforsyria.com or www.palestineonaplate.net to place your order. You can also do so by calling 1-800-238-LINK.

Listing in alphabetical order according to publisher @Arc_Poetry @maclehosepress @peepaltreepress @PeirenePress @PushkinPress @SaqiBooks @SerenBooks @Silver_Press_ @TiltedAxisPress @InterlinkBooks
Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | March 2018

Review | Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel | Book of the Week

In this beautiful memoir of a life lived in and through translation, Mireille Gansel defines the process of bringing words from one language to another as a kind of seeking, tied to the land. Transhumance refers to the seasonal movement of a shepherd and his flock to another land, or humus. It is the opposite of settling and farming: it is a form of nomadism, a search for richer grass, and it provides an apt image for her own trajectory as a translator.” From the foreword by Lauren Elkin

Translation as Transhumance is a rich and resonant read. The lucid, concise prose of award-winning translator, Ros Schwartz, brings alive an exceptional life dedicated to translation as activism. At the book’s launch in Caravansérail, the French-English bookshop and gallery near Brick Lane in the East End, Mireille Gansel spoke to a packed audience about the adventure of translation, of how “it gives you something – a perception of the other,” and of how “Langue natale is not mother tongue, it is a native language. For me it means the language where you come to the world, where you are born to yourself, discover yourself – you are inside intimacy.” A powerful, humanitarian empathy lies beneath Gansel’s narrative. “You end up translating the spirit and the sense of what is underneath the words . . .” said Ros Schwartz, “This book articulated so many things for me that were half-formed ideas, thoughts, about what I do.” Continue reading Review | Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel | Book of the Week

Interview | Cécile Menon, founder, Les Fugitives | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My mother was a reader. Of modern classics mainly. She used to go with her father to the local library in our small home town. There weren’t hundreds of books in the house as I grew up, but enough to spur my interest.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Yes, I wanted to work in publishing, and in England, after obtaining my degree at Sorbonne Nouvelle. I had no connections whatsoever, I was a complete outsider. My MA tutor told me right away it’d take me 10 years to get anywhere in that milieu. I didn’t believe him but he was right. After 10 years, even after I had somehow managed to get hired by the venerable John Calder, Judy Daish and Clive James, I was nowhere near a proper start in publishing. Having said that I was never really good at holding down a job! Working for Clive James was obviously a unique experience with a long-lasting influence on me. Continue reading Interview | Cécile Menon, founder, Les Fugitives | Indie Publisher of the Week

Interview | Ros Schwartz | Translator of the Week

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I dropped out of university in the early 1970s and ran away to Paris where I spent eight years soaking up the French language and culture. I enrolled at the radical university of Vincennes and did various jobs, from telephone operator on the SNCF enquiries line to picking grapes, milking goats and teaching English in companies. When I came back to the UK in 1981, I found that I was unemployable, so I announced myself as a translator.

When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
I lived in a house full of books. My father collected books and had very eclectic tastes. We used to go to Portobello Road market together every Saturday and he taught me how to identify a first edition. I had unrestricted access to his entire library. We lived in a small suburban house where there was no privacy. I shared a bedroom with my sister and the only place I could be alone was the loo. During school holidays, I think I spent most of my waking hours locked in the toilet with a book. I was a serial reader, so I’d find an author and then read everything by them. I graduated from Enid Blyton to Angela Brazil – I loved boarding school stories – and Agatha Christie. As an older teenager, it was Sartre and Camus, Zola and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Continue reading Interview | Ros Schwartz | Translator of the Week

Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week

On their first date, in the park, they got down to some serious petting. He gave Tianyi a blow-by-blow account, making her blush with his frankness: ‘She undid her bra so I could feel her breasts,” he stammered. ‘Then she pushed my hand down there . . .’
‘Is she pretty?”
‘No, but she’s curvy, and she’s really hot.’
‘So she fits the bill?’ Tianyi asked with a touch of sarcasm.
‘Yes, she does,’ Jin went pink. ‘So I need your help, I’ve been wanting to do an experiment, to watch a girl’s reaction to having sex . . .’
‘That’s not fair, if she really loves you . . .’
‘But I might fall in love with her during the experiment. So there’s nothing unfair about it . . .’
‘It’s crazy.’

It’s not every day you come across a novel in which a mainland Chinese author writes openly about women, sex and corruption − affording the reader a voyeuristic glimpse into intimacy and relationships, Chinese style.

Continue reading Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week

Interview | Roh-Suan Tung, Balestier Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and grew up in Taiwan. My parents both love books and I remember lots of books surrounding me as a kid.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Yes and no. I learned how to be an editor early during the school years. I was then involved in the student movements for media freedom during around 30 years ago in Taiwan. My formal career started as a researcher and a professor in physics, in UK, USA and China. During the time, I was acting as editors for international science journals for some years. I always feel there is a need of literature and humanity publication, translating from all the languages in Asia, and I started to devote myself to Balestier Press.

Has your vision from when you started Balestier Press in 2014 changed?
The vision that there should be more books in translation from Asia remains. Since we started Balestier Press, we have received numerous encouragements and support from the writers and translators around the world.

Continue reading Interview | Roh-Suan Tung, Balestier Press | Indie Publisher of the Week