Interview: Xueting Christine Ni on Chinese SF

Book cover: Sinopticon - Chinese SF stories translated by Xueting Christine NiWith Sinopticon, critically acclaimed writer and essayist Xueting Christine Ni has curated a unique exploration of China’s speculative fiction from the late 20th Century onwards. In advance of publication next week, she was kind enough to stop by for a chat about translation, curation and the Chinese science fiction scene.

When did you first start thinking about putting Sinopticon (love the name!) together? Can you tell us about the journey from concept to completion?

Rather than calling the book something wishy washy or naming it for one of the stories in the collection, my copy editor and I wanted something that immediately said “Chinese perspective”. It needed to capture that intent of providing a window into Chinese society and viewpoints, as well as being something that sounded cool and futuristic. 

For me, translation has always been about more than transferring words from one language into another. As someone who was raised in multiple parts of China, I’ve always taken pride in the country’s vast and diverse heritage, and since I found myself transplanted to the other side of the world during my adolescence, it has felt like cultural translation has always been part of my existence and the negotiation of my identity. The concrete idea of doing work to further understanding of my first culture among the people of my second home first began when I graduated from Queen Mary’s in 2004. Two years later, I published my first fictional translation and realised that I needed to further my own understanding of China and its literature. So, I decided to return to China to live whilst doing my post-grad studies.

I came across – and sought out – a lot of genre fiction that was just beginning to flourish in China: the manhua (graphic novels) and homegrown SFF such as the daomu (tomb-raiding) fiction had taken a foothold and I saw it as being a really important signifier of the changes that were happening in China. Since then, I’ve been trying to bring volumes of this amazing, creative stuff over for Anglophone audiences.

There has been a huge amount of gatekeeping in both translation circles and Anglophone publishing. At that time, Western publishers really couldn’t see much past misery tales of the Cultural Revolution or semi-academic books on China’s ancient civilisation. Most of the ‘literary’ translators in the UK were academics, and there was a baked-in belief that non-Western translators somehow couldn’t do quite as thorough a job of localisation as Western translators. They could probably just about accept someone ethnically Chinese who was born and raised in an Anglophone country, but as a Chinese immigrant who’d spent a childhood in China and the rest of my life in the UK – and whose highest official qualifications were a Bachelor’s in English Lit and studying Chinese Lit as a post-grad – well… they didn’t quite know what to make of me.

I was left seeing these huge, important cultural touchstones whizzing past unregarded, unable to gain attention for these amazing projects. It was infuriating. So I continued to write about China and its culture, and to build up recognition for my non-fiction writing as well as my lectures and talks on Chinese film, music, and yes, its popular literature, until I gained momentum and opportunities arose. It has only taken about ten years till I got someone to listen.

How did you decide what authors to approach, and how do you select stories for an anthology like this? 

Despite having the concept fully formed in my head, I only had a few weeks between signing the book deal and putting together a finalised selection of stories. Obviously I couldn’t just pull out the handful of works I’d held on to since my post graduate days. Some of them had been very much superseded, others had found their way over already in publications like Clarkesworld. And none of them gave an insight into how quickly the genre was developing.

As the subtitle suggests, I was aiming to showcase the great range of Chinese sci-fi over the three decades of the current revival, so while most of the stories were originally published in Chinese within the last ten years, I’ve also included a few older works. The most important criteria I had was that they all had to be excellent stories. 

There aren’t really a lot of established channels by which Chinese SF authors can reach an English audience. There are a handful of small agencies that bridge the gap between the public and the periodicals that publish their works, but not all of them are active in the Anglophone sphere. So, I took a mixture of approaches: some to authors I’d met or worked with before; others whose works I’ve read and really admired. I was lucky to be put in touch with someone from an agency who also had a role in fostering the community and introduced me – even to writers not contracted to them. I ended up with a very good pool to choose from.

You can count the number of English language anthologies of Kehuan (Chinese sci-fi) on one hand, and Sinopticon is the really the first to originate from the UK. Anthologies and translations published online are vital bridges. The better these do, the more likely channels will eventually establish and more work can be made available. 

How do you decide what order to present the stories in?

I was wondering how most people would read an anthology – cherry-picking, reading in order… – so I did a Twitter poll. Most people who participated said they would read the collection in the order presented by the editor, so I needed to make sure there was a flow to it. 

We basically sat there with a card for each story, noting the title, length, tone, and a few key words, and then rearranged, and rearranged and rearranged them, until we felt that we had something special. 

The easiest ones to place were The Last Save and Starship: Library which open and close the collection. Gu Shi’s story starts with a very commonplace and relatable activity, and then ramps up into this wonderfully complex personal story where consequence and responsibility are almost negligible. Out of the whole collection, it felt like the one that draws you in the easiest. Jiang Bo’s Starship: Library is a wonderful story to finish a book with because it talks about the importance of reading, and I feel becomes a very direct address to the reader. 

I realise that a lot of the stories deal with difficult or heavy subject matter, and I found myself spacing these out throughout the collection; partly so they would retain their impact, but also to not weigh too heavily on the reader. I also wanted to keep perceptions fresh and enable readers to see each work on their own terms. It wasn’t hard to keep the tone and style varying, because the stories are all so very different from each other. It was actually at this stage of the project that I really defined my role in relation to it. I have been the translator, I have been the editor, but above everything, I’ve been a curator: selecting the works, contextualising them, presenting them in a way that the audience can appreciate – and here I am laying them out like exhibits in a guided tour. I think the end result is definitely something I’m always going to be very proud of. 

What challenges did you face in translating from Chinese into English?

Translation from Chinese to English has never really been much of a struggle for me, to be honest. As an immigrant, it has felt like second nature and part of most things I did, especially after I went on to study English Lit at degree level. When I gradually began to find my voice as a literary translator and culture writer, I found that most of what I was doing was translation – if not of language, then of ideas, concepts, or approaches. These days my cultural insights are more important to me and even if I’m mostly writing to explain what is amazing about what’s coming out of China to the Anglophone world, it feels like a kind of macro translation. 

That said, whilst much of literary translating feels very intuitive for me, there are definitely challenges. I’ll try to break it down to explain what these are and what it feels like working through them. I think I enjoy working through most of these – although perhaps not when I just know in my gut that a word or a turn of phrase I’ve used isn’t quite right or quite accurate or doesn’t quite flow. It sits in me like a stone as I mull it over, refusing to let it go, letting it nag me on and on, until eventually, the right thing pops into my head – that’s definitely a moment of joy.

Of course, doing a good job of turning something from one language to another is never a literal or mechanical process. Beyond the vocabulary, there are the proverbs, idioms and analogies that might be ingrained in the primary language, but totally alien to the secondary. In these cases, I would either create new metaphors or aim to use language in a way that encourages readers to perceive in a new way, rather than skip over that part, or find the closest English equivalent. I think this creates a space for the language you’re translating from, so it’s not just subsumed into the one you’re translating into.

There are also struggles of a more editorial nature, such as when you spot inconsistencies in the stories. Do you leave it as it is, or try and improve the piece by resolving them? Luckily with Sinopticon, I was editor, translator and curator, though I know some of my contributors would call me judge, jury and executioner. It was interesting to discuss the issues with the authors as an editor, finding solutions to things which were only ever highlighted once we started the translation process.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of SFF? How would you like to see things change? 

I’m optimistic about the future of SFF. The more we recognise the world’s multilateralism – both in terms of systems, cultures and outlooks – the richer the genre becomes. More diverse views of the future and more interesting imaginings of it in science fiction; and more cultures to draw informed inspiration from in fantasy, and ways in which we can spin out unrealities.

Once upon a time in the 1960s, before the current flourishing of Western geek culture, more translated works got published in English. Right now, I think we’re seeing a return of interest in works from other cultures. This is important, because I can see a future that is fuelled not just by developed countries, but the developing. With the technological advancements made in regions like Africa, the Middle East and Asia, these regions will also play more active roles in the global arts.

Certainly in China, writers are having to go extra wild on the “what if?” when fictional technology is often outstripped by reality, and writers are starting to steer their own SF tradition in directions they want, away from orientalist futuristic outlooks. Anglophone SFF already gets translated and imported into many non-Western cultures, and it’s time for English-speaking readers to look back. It’s the only way to keep SFF vitalised, and prevent it from stagnating. I’m seeing more minority writers and translators coming forward and taking the opportunity to represent their heritage. Diaspora translators like myself are now part of groups in which we can support each other for more equality in representation and opportunities. There are professionals from some Western countries – Italy for example – writers, editors and publishers who are actively moving towards multipolarity and biodiversity in SF. That’s very important and I hope more of them can to do so. 

What attracts you to SFF?

As someone who used to be immersed in realist and contemporary classics, I’m awed by how many more tools sci-fi and horror give you to work with, and the freedom to create your own. It enables the writer to explore themes in a more intense, heightened way. To me the boundaries between genre, non-genre, ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ fiction aren’t so clear cut, or that important. There are well written works in any style and genre that should be celebrated. 

Each SFF tradition deserves to be explored as an entity in and of itself, wherever it comes from. Chinese society is at a very different point of development from the developed world; writers are exploring certain themes within the context of their own sociocultural ecosystem for the very first time (regardless of their status quo in anglophone fiction) and these explorations should be appreciated on their own terms. 

I find that many of China’s new social developments and concerns are being addressed through science fiction. From robots and drone technology to above 5G telecommunications, high tech has entered the everyday life in China and Chinese SF often explores the question of how technology can be used to improve daily life. Plastic surgery has become so prevalent that some have come to see it as a necessity for success in life, and there’s been stories on body modification in Kehuan. The Chinese have great reverence for learning, so dealing with enhanced intelligence is a big theme in their sci-fi. One major development is the employment of classical and traditional culture in SF, which may seem perfectly normal to a lot of other nations, but China’s recent history meant that there was a disconnect between tradition and the modern in Chinese culture and many writers are now re-establishing that link. This is also a time when a lot of creators are looking back on their heritage – I think that incorporating it into visions of the future is very much an act of declaring that they will not bury it, discard it, or hide it ever again. 

I think China will continue its fascination with Mars – especially now that Tianwen 1 has arrived on the red planet – and it will feature even more in the science fiction imagination. Space operas and stories about “Going Out” into space will also continue to thrive. China is just at the beginning of its space age with programmes like FAST and DAMPE; who knows what might be discovered in the not too distant future. Artificial Intelligence, which China is investing heavily in, is also a huge topic in science fiction at the moment and I think it will provide yet more literary inspiration as the technology develops further. It’s the same with cleaner energy and the attempts being made to clean up after being used as the factory floor of the world. 

What have been your favourite recent SFF books, shows or movies?

I’ve been trying to catch up on books by other people of colour, which have become a lot more accessible, available and spotlighted. Unfortunately, with a day job and reading for research, I often have far less time to read for pleasure than I’d like, but I do really enjoy my treat reads when I do. This year I’ve really enjoyed Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. I never thought I’d be reading the sort of historical epics that I grew up with in English. I’ve also loved Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. I’ve been fascinated by Native American culture, but not really had a chance to find out about it. The unquiet female voice in this book is something I think should be highlighted in more in fiction. I’ve just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, which was amazing in its speculative science and in its exploration of the alien from both from the angle of a minority earth culture and of an extra-terresterial species, it’s something I’ve really picked up on regarding western perceptions of Chinese culture.

Lockdown has given me a chance to catch up on films and TV shows. I’ve been enjoying quite a few C Drama series, like Douluo Continent and The Legend of Fei, but one show I’ve really loved has been the French series Lupin. It’s not something I’d have picked out initially, it’s well written, well-paced, stylish, and tackles those issues of social and racial inequalities that we can no longer shy away from. I thought the Shang-chi movie was excellent and wrote two pieces on it, a positive portent in the representation of Asian culture in the West to come.

“If you enjoyed this you should read that” – what authors or stories would you urge non Chinese readers to explore?

I’ve never believed in being too prescriptive. If I’ve sparked new interest, the reader should let it take them wherever it does. Luna Press publishes quite a few SFF collections from non-Anglophone traditions, and Reincarnated Giant edited by Theodore Hunter and Song Mingwei is a good starting point for Kehuan (Chinese SF) as it features a range of translators. If you want to read diaspora works, I’d recommend The Dragon and the Stars edited by Derwin Mak, which features some amazing stories by different writers of Chinese descent around the world. 

What projects will you be working on next?

There’s one thing I can tell you about, which is “The Way That Spring Arrives”, a fabulous collection of SFF by female and non-binary creators out in March, for which I’ve contributed an essay on women’s online literature. My aim has always been to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, so my next book will be a non-fiction one. We’re still discussing with publishers exactly which of the ideas bubbling away in my head we are going to go with, but in the meantime I’ll be writing articles and – once current pandemic issues have become manageable – I hope to lecture some more. In terms of fiction, I’d certainly like there to be another Sinopticon style collection, for which I’d have no problem finding excellent stories from different writers to bring volumes of overlooked genre fiction to anglophone audiences. There’s a lot out there I’d love to introduce the Western world to.

Xueting (or Christine) Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Her translation work has ranged from comics, poetry, essays, film, fantasy and science fiction. Xueting has also written extensively on Chinese culture and China’s place in Western popmedia, as well as speaking on tea culture, Chinese animation, indie music, classical literature, Chinese food, film and science fiction. Her aim is to show the West that there is more to Chinese culture than kung fu and Monkey (though she thinks both ARE pretty cool).

Xueting Christine Ni can be found online: twitter | blog

Many thanks to Rebellion Publishing and Xueting Christine Ni for the chance to have a chat. SINOPTICON is released by Solaris Books on November 12th.