(Julie O’Yang is a writer and visual artist from Amsterdam. We recently met on the back of a virtual napkin for an hour of literary courting. The result was this cross-fire discussion ranging from Art to Amsterdam and from Butterfly (also the title of Julie’s last novel) to Bejing. Julie is a colorful personality, who’s written a beautiful book. Or perhaps she’s a beautiful book who’s written a colorful personality, I’m not sure anymore which.)
MS: I’m wearing as little as possible because it got really hot in Berlin all of a sudden. I wear a brown T-shirt with the head of a bear wearing a firefighter’s hat and the writing “Remember Only You Prevent Wildfires!”. My sister gave it to me. Is it art? I’m not sure—though basically I’ve share Warhol’s credo: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But literature is the only art I really understand as a maker.
Let me ask you a question: is the cover of your novel “Butterfly” art? If so, what did you do that made it so? I would actually call it delicious, which suggests a cross between great food and art.
J O’Y: Oh, you don’t touch “Food”, Food is the Chinese religion. But yes, the cover of my book. It is art when the creator brings the work in contact with the external world and thus by way of interaction adds his contribution to the creative act. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is art because it communicates. Art can’t perform itself. For me Art is communication, if not, it is not. So you said literature is the only art you really understand as a maker. How can we make literature “talk” without being dull. Do you think fiction is worth the trouble? I mean it has almost become a cliché to remark the decline of literature, art, decline of anything.
MS: I used the Fountain by Duchamp as a profile photo for a while. It lead to curious email exchanges with Americans (no, I have no explanation for this that would also be politically correct). The fountain talks to me, it didn’t talk to them or if it did talk, it talked gibberish. I found it crystal-clear. The fountain said “don’t be dull”. But it also told me: “If you think you could turn anything upside down now and call it Art because I did you’re sorely mistaken.” So I believe there’s more to it than communication. To original Art at least which is, I think the only art worth doing. Literature ditto, I think. Harder to grasp at times. A pet topic of mine, really: writing that is “fake good”; that pretends to have something to say but it doesn’t really. This type of writing is very fashionable nowadays (but I’m not going to name names because I want to keep my knee-caps intact). So by implication: yes, I do think Fiction is worth the trouble. You make the world, or you make the world anew, or you make the world whole by writing something that is true. This aspect of art has been sorely in decline indeed. Perhaps this is just a phase though like an ice age. I don’t mind living in an ice age though: I got fur mittens.
Coming back to your book: was it worth the trouble? I’ve not really finished a novel myself (though I’ve written a few if that makes sense) so I’m truly curious how it feels. (MS waits) — You don’t want to talk about the cover of your book. Fine with me. Don’t then…it does talk, that cover. It whispers “butterfly”. Incidentally, I’m a fan of butterflies. In my writing, there are plenty of butterflies. And dragons. I like those, too.
Writing for me is like breathing. Is breathing worth the trouble? I’m not sure but I am doing it every minute. It’s not up to me.I’m stealing from one of your interviews in which the interviewer touched the subject. “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Can you tell us something about the (re)birth of short/flash fiction and its popularity in Germany?
MS: You’re a thief but that’s fair game: it’s written in the DNA of all artists. I’ve seen this Barthes quote before: at > kill author, a journal that build every issue like a tome over the bones of a dead author. Otherwise, this is typical French philosophy, which is either too obvious or too weird. This one is too obvious for me. It does make me think of death though, as did the opening paragraph of your novel: the odour of death vs. the scent of perfume…
I don’t want to answer another question on flash ever. I’m flashed out. I know nothing of flash in Germany, and I really only write short stories as a form of exercise. Though I get a lot of them written because I can hardly make myself finish anything. Do you know this problem? How many novels did you start until you finished “Butterfly”? Or why not?
MS: What is it with Asians and robots? The other day I saw a robot butt designed in Japan. Will everyone want one when they come out? Will it make farting trendy? Perhaps Asians love robots to cope with the future. Perhaps the robot is the medium; if you’re right about that “mediumistic experience” of writing (I concur) then writers would be great companions for robots. We should write a novel about a writer and his (her) robot together! I totally sympathize with the need for robots. I’m a huge robot fan myself. I need the hope that there will be true robots one day to cope. Remembering is another way to cope with memories. But I like that thought of yours, which never occurred to me. The reason why I opted for English instead of my native tongue is probably because my writing mind awoke in the midst of English culture and was further nurtured by my English-speaking family environment. To me, one disadvantage is my constant guilt feeling towards my mother tongue (perhaps that’s just another form of guilt towards my mother?); the distance of outside observation using English as a tool is also painful. It’d be so much cosier to just be one with my world; alas, I’m two (at least).
What about your own bilinguality? What’s your passion? I read that you were born in China, live in the Netherlands (where I studied and worked for a while, odd little place), studied Japanese. But you write in English and here you are chatting with a German (I presume you like the whole Berlin thing?) … somewhere, Jeanette Winterson says “The measure of love is loss”. Do you love English?
MS: Your statements are challenges. I accept. My writing doesn’t begin with language, it begins with a wordless, shapeless urge that I can’t name which drives me crazy, gives rise to an image or a set of images until I manage (sometimes) to channel the urge into a sentence. Language comes last. Now the technical writing can begin.
I love that idea of the “salad bar in my head”. What a wonderful scene. Jeremy Irons is scary. The Netherlands aren’t. They were once, when the Dutch were colonial geezers, but now they’re modeling what it means to be civilized for the rest of Europe. Didn’t know Heine was down on them—well, he loved the French. We all love the French, love to hate them. Honestly, I think they’re forward-looking today (the Dutch) albeit a tad boring. But being a role model is boring (laughs).
JOY: “It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.” Which roses? Creating a new sense & sensation, do you? (What kind of food do you like the most? What’s your favourite dish? Do you cook?)
MS: in German we have this saying “jemandem ein Loch in den Bauch fragen”—pester someone with questions is like “asking a hole in his belly”. German’s very grounded in medieval lingual and cultural oddities. Roses are odd flowers. I can’t say I like them, but I love Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) who said this. I imagine she was a bit tortured as a person and writer, trying to make the best of her erotic talents in Victorian England, and which flower is more tortured, and promises more torture than the rose? Food is a different question (book even) altogether: I don’t cook, my wife does, and whatever she cooks is what I like best. I’m a creative eater though. Right now, we’re going through a large number of Tapas dishes (a good fit for the hot weather). How about you? Both roses and food (I can’t let you off the hook now)—butterflies don’t come to roses, do they? And can you cook Chinese (I’d like that)?
J O’Y: Mutabilis, do you know the rose? The flower doesn’t fade, instead it darkens with showy, distinct coloration. The single petals open sulphur yellow, changing through orange to a rich pink and finally crimson. Before you know, you have a whole collection of bright, silky, multi-coloured butterflies settling on the bush in your garden. Mutabilis’ common name is Butterfly Rose. I don’t know why it’s also called The China Rose. I cook Chinese but not so well. I prefer to eat. I love food in general, however Italian and Chinese, La cucina piccola fal la casa grande. It’s like a book – a book is like a kitchen carried in your pocket. Now I’m saying this, it seems we have reached the point to talk about “the size”. There is a passage I’d like to quote from your website with reference to the “literary size”.
“Contemporary things in prose can have value appropriate to the contemporary psyche only if they’re written in one sitting. Reflections or recollections of twenty of thirty lines—say, at the maximum a hundred lines—that’s the contemporary novel.” Do you think you can tell us of your vision? And the role of New Technology?
MS: you’re quoting quotes back at me, how rude (laughs). This one is by Yuri Olesha, one of the great modern Russian novelists who wrote “No day without a line.” When Olesha lived and wrote — Stalinist Russia — minutes might have been more precious, I don’t know. Russia defies analysis though it is endlessly fascinating as are its writers, poets, bards. One of my best friends is Russian and he has the heart of a poet, too. Otherwise, I don’t think I believe this statement at all. I probably picked it because I needed a justification for my own flash. I’m over that now. There’s no justification for my own flash. I’m over that now. There’s no justification for flash, and none is needed either. And I’m over flash, too. Did I say that already, in a flash? Do you flash? And if so, where?…New technology, OMG. No, you go. These five syllables make me feel sleepy. Say something surprising, please?Image: Uncle Stalin. Neither pretty nor pleasant former dictator of the Soviet Union.
J O’Y: Your first question. I’m running a project on my website, U-R (check it here). I call mine “tablet-size reads”, which are slightly different than flash. It’s my own concept, my own universe and my own logic. I like to work like that.
As for your second question. You are German, aren’t you? I thought machines and stuff turn you guys on, no? You were a particle physicist. Could you explain Super String Theory in five comprehensible sentences? By comprehensible I mean in a literary way…
MS: cool — I LOVE technology to tell the truth. I love tech projects, too. Ultra-Reads reminds me of Movellas where they’re trying to build a whole portal based on palm-sized prose for hand-held devices. Your texts are ultra-lovely by the way. In “The Kite”: «My brother and I thought: “What is glass? What are the facts and certainty?”» I like that influx of existentialism in your writing.
Let me be fast about the facts: I am German (though my wife says it doesn’t show); I won’t say what turns me on (there must be limits); I was a particle physicist, now I’m but a particle. Super String Theory (off the top of my head): (1) the universe is a mystery. (2) Physicists are passionate, curious people, who know this. (3) All physicists feel enormous pressure to have to explain the world to non-physicists. (4) Super String Theory can easily be explained in five sentences. (5) With Wittgenstein, the world cannot be explained in any number of sentences. (Perhaps this is what the world is—a sentence?) — What do you say? Seriously though, when I was a student I once spent an entire train ride of 6 hours explaining physics to an old lady. In the end she shook her head, that was all, and thanked me and left. I understood.
(Image: Ludwig Wittgenstein believed in dissolving philosophical problems by acts of word-magic. Alas, his successors were not been able to repeat his feats hence we’re still plagued by philosophy. Photo by Ben Richards.)
JOY: I imagine that our Universe is a big computer and the Creator is a gamer using I Ching as his User’s guide. I Ching is nothing but a jumbo of binary constructions and riddles. I LOVE physics. Nerdy stuff fascinates me. A few days ago I was working in my U-R project, and I wrote about my protagonists, two children, “…We wanted to steal a glimpse of Eden carefully, scientifically designed by ourselves. Scientific, because we engaged equation in our reasoning. We calculated the shapes of leaves that grew on the flowing branches aeons ago before the tree turned itself into ominous, tough and unbending cement. The dodgy science taught us that it was a bodhi tree of heart-shaped leaves. And for one thing, Paradise is allergic to humans. ”
Next. “…One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.” This is my last question. Do you want to have a drink with me after our conversation? I realise it’s strange because I asked you for a drink with me. But let’s say I can say no to you, would that be enough for one heart-break? Would that give birth to a novel or at least 20 lines?
MS: That’s one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers’ writers, Edith Wharton. For me, this encapsulates the need to not just write anything about anyone or anything provided it’s well written, but to write with a moral sense that art can make the world better, to put it simply. John Gardner is a more modern prophet of this gospel, and there’s a legion of writers who write damn well but so damn heartless that it makes my blood stand still. I’m curious, is there a moral message in “Butterfly”? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Any one coffee date with any one woman would be enough to fill a novel. Twenty lines might leave me hungry for more. And I’m not talking about coffee now. But you asked for it. Bad girl.
J O’Y: Well, I’m spicing up our conversation so people won’t fall asleep. Fighting the overwhelming yawn- factor, I am Saint Joan!
I don’t know if I wanted convey a moral message through my novel(s), I’m not sure. I want to tell a good story in the first place, and if there is a message of sorts – it’s up to my readers – I want it to be challenging. Reigan, my male lead from my novel is a medical doctor. At the beginning of the story, he says to his patient when he visits her in her sickroom: “These days there are a great many books about trauma and its effects on our country’s one point three billion poor souls. Poppycock recipe. We are the aristocrats privileged with a past.” The secret sickroom is the doorway to a painful memory, to repressed history of the Chinese past. In China many things have happened; the mess called history is also our cure. On the other hand, I’d like to think that history is more than a lesson. It’s chocolate. Although chocolate tastes like heaven and makes you smile, there are some disadvantages associated with eating this rich food. It contains high fat and sugar percentage and low vitamin, it is even toxic and can poison your dog! Yes, everything can be too much for a human life.
And then, the Rape of Nanking is one of the main focuses of my novel. I deal with violence. I like to explore human brutality and cruelty not to moralise. I’m not interested in preaching. Violence can radically reshape civilisation. Great changes have occurred in civilisations when cultures of war, heroism and rampant misogyny invaded and stamped out a more benign, nature-based, world view. Take the fall of Troy – and perhaps as a result – a whole way of seeing life, death, women and immortality was mythically reshaped to frame a justification for the harsh rules of patriarchy. Please understand, I’m not propagating war either. I like to play with thoughts.
Message (or the lack of it) aside, while I was writing Butterfly, I was ever more consciously exploring an unnamed aspect of written words. Have you ever tried to walk carrying a grand piano on your back? You’ve got to be that strong to be able to finish a book, ask any writer. A strong body makes the mind strong. The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. So I guess there are two category of writers: creative inspirators and sitters (as luck would have it, in Chinese writer and sitter have exactly the same pronunciation.) Unfortunately I must say, the majority of writers belongs to the bleak category. It’s a tough profession, a tough world out there. But you are either an artist or you are not.
The process of writing a novel is very musical. For me it’s very much similar to singing and dancing; its physical sense makes much more sense to me. The body tries to tell the truth whereas thoughts tell lies. Give all your thoughts to the body. You get into the rhythm and the rhythmics of how your protagonists are. The body is meant to be seen, not all covered up in powder and paint. So is writing. It is William Blake who said that the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. Blake considered the senses the “windows of the soul.” So yes, quite plainly put, writing for me is like having sex that can transcend me as well as my reader to a mystical experience.
Marcus Speh lives in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany, near a large selection of fine coffee houses and writers. He’s a writer, ex-particle physicist, professor, father, husband, former fencer and paratrooper. His flash fiction has been published all over the place, but it’s tiny so you might not find it. However, you’re in luck: in 2012, MadHat Press will publish a collection of his best short fiction titled “Thank You For Your Sperm”. His flash novel “Gizella” will be published in 2013 by Folded Word Press. Since 2010, Marcus has given 14 interviews including this one, and he’s tried hard not to repeat himself too much but probably failed. Probably failed. Probably failed. This is his blog.
Julie O’Yang is a novelist and visual artist based in The Netherlands. Born and brought up in China, Julie O’Yang came to Europe in 1990s to study at the University of London. Then she read Japanese Language and Culture at the University of Leiden, Holland, and Tokyo, Japan. Her fiction, short fiction, poetry and articles have appeared in publications worldwide. Her most recently novel Butterfly has received praises from global audiences as well as international literary and art scene. Known for her unique literary voice both daring and challengingly contemporary, she is a forerunner and trendsetter of media reforms and 21th century indie publishing. Julie O’Yang is on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and has a blog.