‘Dogs are the dirtiest animals; children lick dogs so dogs are covered in children’s’ spit.’ The man we have nicknamed Mean Uncle goes on to asks me what I could possibly be writing about all day long – sniffs – then wanders off to start a fire. Samantha and I check and double check – with all three of us laughing – that our translator has gotten it right. And I think to myself that if I were writing short stories for this project then this would be one of my favourite kick-off points. But I’m not: part of the personal challenge of our new project together is that I’m going to be working with non-fiction.
I’m a writer, based in the UK, and normally I write short stories. I work with Samantha (an American photographer) as two.5, to co-create work that challenges us as individuals and as a partnership to expand our usual creative techniques. We’re on a 3 week residency at Lijiang Studio in China, invited by the studio facilitator and our translator, Frog Wang, as part of the Vesica Piscis residency session. We came into this knowing that our final piece would be a blend of images and text broken into twelve sections and published as a digital app-book, using the template as for our last major project, Dirty Laundry. But something we haven’t discussed in advance is the difficulties we’re now facing with working creatively through a series of languages.
My Mandarin is non-existent, but Frog has volunteered her time as translator so we can interview people in the local community during our residency. This is exciting- we can go to a deeper level than simply observing objects and behaviours and wondering what they signify. She describes her Mandarin as being about the level of a 12 year old, but she’s facing a bigger challenge than that- some of the people we talk to only speak Naxi. Those that do speak Mandarin often have heavy accents. The vocabulary used by the Lake Naxi is not the same as that by the Mountain Naxi. On top of that, I speak British English and she speaks American English so Samantha acts as a cultural translator between us, explaining British idiom such as ‘whingy’ or ‘trousers’.
I’ve given no thought in advance to the emotional impact of letting go of control over my main creative medium: the specificity of words. In my stories, words are selected and paired and built and twisted to evoke shadows of other things. During the residency I fill five A5 notebooks. I write so much each day that my hand cramps up. But I’m transcribing interviews on the fly at the same time as trying to work out whether the phrases and subtle levels of thought being expressed in answer to our questions are truly those of the people we’re talking to, and how much of them belongs to the woman we’re talking to them through.
Perhaps it wouldn’t chafe with me so much if all these experiences were just starting points for my imagination to run riotously in this landscape. I’ve never been to China before, never lived in a predominantly agriculturally community, knew next to nothing about the Naxi people and their culture before we were invited to the Studio. Things happen that I’d know how to deal with in a story: the Dongba Shaman spreading his arms wide and telling us that ‘the mountain is your restroom’ when we go stay with him for a couple of nights. Samantha describing a teenager with full-on attitude at the dance-circle square in Lijiang as ‘He’s so badass, but he’s dancing with a bunch of grannys’. Learning that there are different types of paper for drawing birds compared to for drawing mountains. That wolf hair brushes are better for writing Qi script. That children are born into a family, not to a couple.
But this is non-fiction. We debate what story and whose story it is we’re trying to tell, the ethical implications of attempting to represent another person’s ‘truth’ against the cliché of a travelogue. I panic over the impossibility of capturing specific voices, wonder how I can find a comfortable toehold between points of view. We’re so busy talking to people and capturing those moments that there’s no time to sift the primary material itself or begin working up different styles in draft form. My worries about the final piece are by necessity hypothetical.
Back in the UK, I sit on the notebooks (not literally) for almost two months before I begin to type them up, allocating the content according to the twelve-ish categories Samantha and I laid out and debating during the interviewing process during the residency. Now that i’m working with words again more directly, I’m more comfortable.
We interviewed Frog too one afternoon, so I have her voice directly in my notebook. Interestingly, it comes out utterly separate from the other transcriptions: her tone, her phrases. What I do find spread across the other interviews surprises me- it’s my own attitudes, my assumption, hidden in asides and footnotes and day-after reflections. I may have been working through another person’s mouth, but the experiences have been strongly filtered through my ear, my hand, my sense of what makes a society and where certain behaviours sit. It now seems laughable that I ever considered trying to take myself out of the writing – that I thought, even for a second, that would be possible.
With 15,000 words typed up already and still two full notebooks to go, my next task will be to cut heavily away much of what I wrote down, to make a cleaner, clearer piece that better captures some of the intangibles things that caught our attention. It isn’t something I could do or even think about in a straightforward way while I was at the residency, surrounded by so many new things it was hard to grasp onto any one above others. Perhaps I needed to be back in my home environment to see that the unifying factor between the pieces will be my eyes: what I choose to look at, ask about, concentrate on.
Gao Xingjian once said that ‘It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.’ So I suppose what i’m looking forward to next, as I begin to shape the contents of my residency notebooks, is reclaiming all of these words from other peoples’ mouths and – unhygienically, like a child licking a dog – putting them into my own: finding my way to tell a fiction under the mask of a truth.
Follow the progress of creating our book via the two.5 blog. You can see the format we’ll be using for it by downloading Dirty Laundry, our collection of short stories & photographic triptychs displayed as a free web app for iPad.