Best of Backlist Novels from the Weatherhead Books on Asia Series: A Song of Everlasting Sorrow and A Private Life

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Shanghai, with its distinct and mysterious longtang — neighborhoods circumscribed by narrow alleys — is as powerful a presence as its citizens and provides the occasion for the most poetic writing.
~ New York Times Book Review

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August is Women in Translation Month–a time in which we celebrate and read works in translation by female authors. In appreciation of our women in translation, this week we are delving into our backlist to feature fiction and nonfiction from around the world. Today we are featuring two novels translated from Chinese into English and published in our Weatherhead Books on Asia series.

First up is The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan.

As co-translator Michael Berry mentions in his afterword, Wang Anyi has “established herself as one of the most prolific, dynamic, and imaginative fictional stylists on the Chinese literary scene.” And as Berry mentions The Song of Everlasting Sorrow “stands out as her crowning literary achievement.” Written and published in 1995, Wang was awarded China’s most prestigious literary prize, the Mao Dun Literature Prize, in 2000 for The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.  Columbia University Press originally published the English language translation in 2008.

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, the novel follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods. Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. “Throughout the novel,” writer Francine Prose wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “Shanghai, with its distinct and mysterious longtang — neighborhoods circumscribed by narrow alleys — is as powerful a presence as its citizens and provides the occasion for the most poetic writing.”

You can read the first section of the novel, which introduces the longtong, in an excerpt from The New York Times and can keep reading into the section “Gossip.”

 

Next up is A Private Life by Chen Ran, translated by John Howard-Gibbon. A Private Life exposes the complex and fantastical inner life of a young woman growing up during a time of intense social and political upheaval. First published in 1996 to widespread critical acclaim, Chen Ran’s controversial debut novel is a lyrical meditation on memory, sexuality, femininity, and the often arbitrary distinctions between madness and sanity, alienation and belonging, nature and society.

In this chapter, “Dancing on tiptoe in black rain…,” narrator Ni Niuniu reflects back on her childhood and the private conversations we have with ourselves.

Tell us what you think about these excerpts in the comment section below, and be sure to check back in tomorrow for a glimpse at a couple of short stories in translation.

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