Yan Ge cultivates multiple selves, some more terrifying than others.
I was born into a family whose members were by and large literary people and who all expected me to be a writer when I grew up. My first article was published in the city newspaper when I was nine or ten years old and my first book came out when I was seventeen. I’ve published thirteen books since. I write one to twelve hours a day. When I don’t write, I read books. On top of that, I studied literature at university and later completed a creative writing MFA.
In other words, I’m entirely disconnected from the real world where real people live and work different jobs. I am, according to my cousin, a weirdo.
I take her remark as a compliment, a hard-boiled reality I have to live with. Having written fiction for many years, I’ve grown slightly eccentric. Most evidently, my world has been dominated, for a long time now, by a third person narrator. I’m never ‘I’ in my head, I am a ‘she’: she is writing again, in the student canteen. She hits the keyboard with one hand while popping almonds into her mouth with the other. Last week a girl from her workshop whose flatmate is a nutritionist told her that almonds are superfood for the brain and could potentially postpone dementia for two to five years. She’s been eating almonds aggressively since.
She is working on an article. It’s supposed to be about metamorphosis. Whenever she sees this word she thinks of her father. He is the person who read the Kafka short story to her when she was eleven or twelve. He read and reread the first sentence quite a few times with great enthusiasm and explained to her that this was one of the greatest opening sentences of modern fiction, and why. He also said something about allegorical fiction or fictional allegory. She can’t remember.
She doesn’t speak with her father much these days. She lives in a foreign county. There is eight hours’ time difference between them. She is busy with the course and occupied by her eighteen month old when she’s home. But none of those are the real reason; the real reason is that she finds it increasingly difficult to speak Chinese. To be clear: she speaks Chinese perfectly. It’s just that to speak Chinese makes her sad.
She becomes heightened in her mother tongue. It makes her vulnerable and tender, sensitive and irritable; less herself.
She is settled with the current image of herself, resting in a second language, watching the world through fresh lenses. It’s hard to know why she came all this way. She always enjoys doing difficult things, possibly a consequence of her over-exposure to Greek mythology as a child. But it’s more than that. She thrives when there’s a struggle and believes life is ultimately about endurance – but neither matters here. Ah, yes: a second language interrupts her, reflects her constantly as a stranger, and as a fiction writer, a compulsive observer she enjoys meeting strangers. Slowly and imperceptibly, she discovers who she really is.
It occurred to her earlier today, the most plausible approach to the theme of metamorphosis was to write about the change of her literary language. But she doesn’t feel like doing it.
She consulted her husband. ‘What am I going to write about metamorphosis?’
He replied: ‘What did you think of the other day when you looked at the photo of you as a six months old?’
‘And now you’re a Mama.’
‘I don’t want to write about motherhood. I’m still traumatized.’
‘Fair enough,’ he texted.
She is left with nothing to write about so she tears open the pack of almonds, hoping the little vitamin E fortified angels will stimulate her through her daily, hourly writer’s block. Nothing happens. She eats more almonds.
Or maybe, she speculates, it has nothing to do with choosing a sensible approach; she just doesn’t like the idea of metamorphosis. After all, she has always been scared of insects. It terrifies her to picture that some unforeseeable change could take place in her body abruptly and she’d wake up a foreign object. She would be trapped, in the shell of a beetle, the bark of a laurel tree, as a non-native English writer, a mother, and she could never go back again.
No no no she hasn’t metamorphosed. There hasn’t been any irreversible conversion. Nobody has suspended her from practicing as a Chinese writer, and motherhood is not a terminal disease. Take a deep breath. Things will improve. It does get easier.
When she was a teenage girl she always felt lonely. So she imagined there was another girl living inside her. She talked to her, she wrote letters to her. The idea of having someone else in her body consoled her. She was content that there was this otherness in her: strange, changeable, undefinable things which would puzzle her perpetually. It was the otherness that made her feel like herself, free and vigorous—and it was from there everything started.
As a result, she is still in me. Or I am still in her. Because nothing is certain and I question myself all the time. This is, again, part of the occupational hazard of being a fiction writer. On the other hand, there are privileges. One of the best privileges, aside from having the licence to be a weirdo, is to be able to cultivate multiple selves, to live a life of polyphony. In this sense, I’m coexisting with memories of my family and ancestors, my imaginary friends, the characters in my fiction and all of my past and forthcoming identities.
Sometimes, when I sit by myself I can hear them talk: negotiating, squabbling, and laughing together. The loudness of them settles me. It makes me feel that I am always accompanied in my solitude.
Yan Ge was born in 1984 in Sichuan in the People’s Republic of China, and currently lives in Dublin. She has published a dozen books and has won multiple awards. Her novels The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (translated by Nicky Harman) and Strange Beasts (translated by Jeremy Tiang) received PEN Translates awards.