Published 8 October 202115 November 2021 · Writing / Friday Features / Long read / Main Posts Creative migration: ‘to emigrate inwardly’ Ouyang Yu No one, particularly an intellectual or artist, migrates just for money (1). In my case, I didn’t even entertain thoughts of migration when I left for Australia in mid-April 1991; I went there to merely pursue academic studies in the hope of getting a PhD degree. In the process of securing my PhD, from 1991 to 1994, however, my instinct for wandering took hold and I found myself coming to the decision to get my PR (permanent residence) in Australia and, at the end of my PhD studies, I said no to the offer of an associate professorship from a university in China. I recorded my thoughts and feelings in a book of poetry that I wrote in 1995, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet, three years on i no longer know what nationality i am i am a bit of everything i was reading herman hesse some ten years ago in a wuhan university library and i had the impression that i not he had written the entire book should i owe the success to the translator or to the author neither i should owe that to myself to that something within that is capable of infinite metamorphosis that something that at once denies the existence of my own being and creates a totally alien one was it that that prompted my friend to say that he had not realized that he had been living all along like rousseau until he read him in chinese translation or put it more simply is this an unconscious spiritual colonization by an unwitting colonizer are we willing conspirators in an increasingly unbalanced international game? but we have lost forever lost like thieves our writers steal from them and stuff their notes and who are praised for being so much like us the slit-eyed and single-fold eyed no longer exist for they have all gone to their western/ized doctors and had the double-fold-eye operation i am thinking of a time probably in a hundred years when all over china and asia macdonalds are the standard meal teams play american or english or australian football only presidents premiers party chairmen professors converse in admirable oxford harvard or even aussie english everybody drives a car nobody needs a divorce as nobody really marries freedom is as easily available as a can of coke and as easily disposable critics judge according to the rules set by marx engels nietzsche Derrida Lacan Foucault Bhabha Said Barthes anyone who speaks a european language has sunken eyes big nose and armpits that need constant dressing with deodorant writers are proud of the fact that they can speak and write in a second language better than they do in their first their mother tongue raped then force-married by the newly-found father tongue and the masses once you give them something good to eat they will go with you if you give them a skin for free they’ll wear it if you give them a colour they’ll take it as long as it is whiter than their own and freer of charge god must have said somewhere that this world eventually will be under christianity and an english one at that what would you do when that happens ah well i’ll speak chinese i guess It’s perhaps interesting to note that one chooses to live in an English-speaking country with an English-speaking future while electing to speak ‘chinese’. But isn’t that the paradoxical reality of being a migrant, accepting to live the place but not the language? That being the case, I decided early on to cut through the jungle of academic obstruction and social rejection, in a country known for its previous, and still lingering, harshness on migrants from Asia in general and those from mainland China in particular by travelling down the lonely path of bilinguality, bent on creating a career out of nothing, literally from scratch. And the result is what everyone can see: nothing if not creative, and for this I thank migration for the impetus and inspiration that it has brought me over my Australian years, thirty by 2021. One of the first things that has to be said is that self-translation for translation as part and parcel of this migratory process and self-translation, even more than other forms of translation, serves as an empowering way of moving into an alien language and culture. I recall one early poem I wrote in Chinese that I subsequently self-translated into English. It goes thus, Moon You are lonely You wander all alone across the boundless heavenly desert, east to west, ignored You are lonely You are not wanted You pace in vain before the door, on the window, around the bed, all asleep now You are not wanted You are insomniac You think through the night in dream, with an unclosing eye that gazes upon the world You are insomniac You are not understood Described by some as a white rabbit under the laurel tree, by some as lifeless and cold You are not understood You are mine You shed liquid brilliance on me and find yourself in my eyes You are mine One immediately notices that this poem, written in mid-1985 in China, did not see the light of the day till 1995 when it appeared for the first time in my first collection of English poems, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems, many of which contain self-translated poems without calling themselves so. Poetry, it seems, has a way of migrating into another language by hook or crook, much the same way migrants did in the 2015 crisis when they found their way into European countries, any European country really. But my way is more metaphysical than physical, more poetic than financial, living and writing both languages in an alien space never felt to be entirely one’s own till well into the twenty-first century. My first novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle, for example, is a story-based long meditation on the process of migration, in which, Dao Zhuang, the protagonist, muses in a poem thus, Silenced the voice when silenced creeps out of fingers the words when silenced constipate the trees when silenced expatriate the heart when silenced transplants Indeed, the mind, when expatriated and transplanted, creates, and it creates a hell lot of stuff that otherwise would not have come into being. Consider James Joyce who did most of his work after he migrated with his partner to continental Europe in his early twenties. Consider, too, Samuel Beckett, who wrote in both English and French, translating himself into either language, and spent much of his life in Europe, including France. One’s own native country, in this case China—I happen to recall a remark that a former university classmate of mine made—is a nationwide prison, a prison the size of the country. How can you imagine someone writing in that prison being a creative person without putting himself in peril? One migrates, after all, to break prison and seek freedom outside it even if it is only an illusion. One may argue that Emily Dickinson never migrated. Nor did Fernando Pessoa. They could, it seems, do their lasting creative work secure at home, a homeland that, in my friend’s opinion, might have been dismissed as another prison in either case. For, after all, less than a dozen of her poems published had to suffer heavy editing to ‘fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.’ The very fact that her poems and Pessoa’s poems had to be published posthumously is evidence enough that they have to, if they are creative enough to go against the grain, migrate from death back to life again, securing themselves a permanent place in human history, rather than the so-called this-worldly successes that die when they die. May I add that Pessoa spent ten years in Durban, now part of South Africa, from thirteen to twenty-three, before he returned to Portugal permanently, writing in both English and Portuguese, managing to self-publish four slim books of English poetry and only one book of Portuguese poetry before he died? What a writing life is that, one might wonder, having to publish one’s own work by oneself, in the case of Pessoa, or consigning one’s own work to obscurity, in the case of Dickinson? But that is exactly what migration—mental, spiritual and creative—is all about. You create your work, going against the grain, as Joris-Karl Huysmans did in his novel, Against Nature, the English version of À rebours (1884), convinced that that is what you want to do, not what the world want you to do, not what the critics want you to do, not what the professors want you to do and, ultimately, not what the publishers want you to do. They can all be damned by giving way to your imagination in migration. And it is indeed in migration that one can truly create. It is encouraging to know that Beckett’s first novel was rejected so many times that he ‘decided to abandon it,’ only to see, in his death, its publication in 1992, three years after he died. I say ‘encouraging’ because I’m having the same difficulty with my fifth English novel, which has been rejected so many times that I no longer care although I have not, like Beckett, ‘decided to abandon it.’ For me, the only thing that matters is to ‘emigrate inwardly’ by migrating into writing, be it poetry or fiction or any other genres that take my fancy. If freedom is but an illusion, one’s effort in migrating away from the prison one happens to find oneself in, be it China or Australia or anywhere else that is humanly constructed, will have to move along creative lines where one can truly breathe and live; anything less would be unwanted. A migrant that goes into the mind by way of going against the grain is a stranger, and a total stranger at that, who will not be tamed and contained by the so-called ‘English language’ but he must go against it till the very going-against bursts into creative flames. At one stage, in my case, the more boring stuff I read in English the more mistakes I made until I realized these mistakes were so valuable that they could be turned into what I later termed ‘creative mistakes’. A short poem could serve to illustrate what I mean by that. Reading Dana Gioia, Wrongly that Is I thought I saw Peel pain But I was disappointed To see “feel pain” when I read it again Lately, these ‘creative mistakes’ have reached a new height, not only in Chinese but also in English. I find it hard to resist the temptation to offer a glimpse into what I did recently although I hesitate to quote my lines written in Chinese. One fragment will serve to show how they can work or unwork in English. Con Neck Ted Australias Australiar Australiambic Australiambient Beerooting Bodyssey Bookcruel Ch/anger Chinasal Chinarcissus Clichékespeare Conversensation Convict/ion Cuntepation Cuntrect D/anger Determinational Discontentacle Dungreat Effecticut Flexibible Frankle Freedominate Fucknowledge Georgeousa Hayypjama Happython High-heelectric Idealways Issuede Japron Knowadays Libertypical Lovelocity Musickness Namerica Peacertegy Pignorant Povertry Queeroot Restoreducation Rooften See-king Sharest Soundong Strucfuture Succsinct Surprize Taiwon Tragiclee Universenovel Victoryan We-Chatomic Wonderfulfill Xylicense Zestablish Zombeer Anyone with a good word sense can see that one must be mad to create such shibboleths. But why would poetry succumb to ‘anyone with a good word sense’ anyway? They have enough money to worry about other than poetry. More a migrant miner than a migrant worker, I mine the cultures wherever I go. If one is born with one’s mother tongue, which in my case is Chinese, and one is also given the gift of one’s father tongue, which in my case is English, why can’t one bring the long estranged two together and what better form or genre than poetry in which one can make that happen? So it is towards this goal that I, the migrant miner, am mining a new form that combines the two in a happy reunion. I’ll show you a poem that does exactly that, inspired by an abstract painting that an artist friend of mine did in which he plastered dead flies in the shape of war planes all over the canvas to represent a war. 《Fly机》 这些密密 这些麻麻 这些麇集 这些蝇拥 这些、这些、这些墨渍 这些疑团 这些凝血 这些胶质 这些fly行物 这些、这些、这些欲死 这些弹着点 这些出生入 这些微拟像 这些大祸临 这些、这些、这些拉黑 这些brains垂体 这些half音符 这些poison蘑菇 这些殊death搏 这些、这些、这些菲thin的命 I’m sorry if the Chinese characters sound and look daunting. But if the world will speak an English language in twenty years, as an agent in Australia once proudly and unashamedly predicted, the world will perhaps have to balance that by speaking a Chinese one, too, or at least by understanding a Chinese one. Or else they’ll miss half the show. Perhaps the following one makes a bit more sense although I’m not entirely sure. We’ll see: 《合璧》 half心half意 现实shit一样ugly 我不like她，不能被force着like 也不能逼着self去喜欢 只有death一样地睡去，才觉得comfortable 外面loud起来 响动attracted我的eyes 看不出是否raining，但能从阳台的亮铁railings上 看出开始积累悬挂的水beads了 人不创new，不创新pleasure，生活就跟pigs一样 rain水down了一天，时broken时continuous 无所thing thing的I， 又快smoking完一支cigarette 而sky依然gray着 而water因了树，依然green 那些buildings宛似城市的gravestones 无人凭吊，自己mourning自己 又有人在放firecrackers，以为不是凭吊 其实就是 To do nothing if not creative, to live as an eternal migrant, both physical, metaphysical and poetical, and to live a death that one migrates into with dismal want of success, is to achieve denial, rejection, non-publication, non-inclusion, and anything and everything that goes with a no. A Chinese editor’s remark sounded loud and clear, and it still does, when he commented on my inclusion of large tracks of English in my Chinese novel, titled, Taojin Di （《淘金地》） [A Land of Gold-diggers], about how the 17,000-odd Chinese landed in Robe, South Australia, in the mid-1900s and went on foot to the Victorian goldfields, published in early 2014, by saying: one English word in your novel will cause us a loss of one hundred Chinese readers. Fair enough and bad enough, Mate! If one is an artist whose sole purpose is creation, one can’t afford to keep issuing free passports to people whose sole purpose is making money, can he? For years, I have been writing work in English that has met total rejection, only to end up being published by the publisher who first rejected it and going on to win prizes, unfortunately. Why unfortunately? Well, because it never somehow manages to make the publisher rich marketwise. In this regard, if a migrant miner mines to a sufficient depth for spiritual and artistic gold, he is sure to be denied entry to any country whose only concern is its own welfare of bed, breakfast and bath, and everything else that goes with it. Suffice it to say that the same thing happens in China, on an even more massive scale, like Portugal with Pessoa, America with Dickinson, Ireland with Joyce, Austria with Kafka, England with BS Johnson, and any number of countries where the heart and mind are being suppressed, forcing them to ‘emigrate inwardly’, if not outwardly. Sometimes, one does wish to stay put at home in the truest sense of the word, striking roots as deeply as one can, remaining relaxed and comfortable, and tame, and creative to an acceptable and successful degree, never going beyond the limit, never stepping out of the comfort zone and submitting to the restrictions and restrains other people want you to submit to, without for a moment thinking of migrating, not even mentally and metaphysically, happy to be a domesticated animal, eating out of the authority’s and the funding organizations’ hands, and playing their game with the fixed rules. But do listen to this poem, which I wrote about thirty-six years ago in China—for, long before I physically migrated, I had already done so in the depths of my heart. The Wanderer you have walked for a long time in the territory of the heart hovering around the edge and dreaming of the freedom on the other shore your reality is iron bars the shadows of the sun ten thousand miles away perhaps not joined you are lumbering towards there in response to the voiceless call you encounter identical days and nights everything keeps you at a distance and everything is laughing you hear secret cries in the middle of a desert and ocean the bone marrow has turned into fossil before trails of blood burst into flowers submerged in sunshine, bars of iron are poking through seams of cloud before you catch the sun you have been sunken by the stars bearing yourself you fly with wings bound by the universe wherever you go it comes back to you you are yourself and the loss of you hovering around the border and dreaming of the freedom on the other shore you have walked for a long time in the territory of the heart Still, one remains part of that species that will be forced to migrate from place to place, from country to country, from time to time, from space to space, and, ultimately, from life to death and, possibly, back to life again when one is long gone, for the world will always be happy to kill more Pessoas, Dickinsons, Becketts and Joyces by refusing to publish them or forcing them into obscurity because their work defies the norm and they do not bring in profit and they confuse the mediocrities. Let them have a field day while they are alive for who knows if they do not die deader than the ones rejected by them. Footnotes: (Title) Adam Thirlwell, ‘The death of Bohumil Hrabal,’ in Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England. London: Vintage Books, 2009 , p. xxvi. This article is based on a talk I gave at Connecting Spaces, Zurich University of Arts, in Hong Kong, on 12/11/15. (1) This statement, as rightly pointed out by Nicholas Birns and I thank him for that, may beg the question that there really are what’s known as ‘economic migrants’ throughout world history, often originating in the under-developed or developing countries and moving towards the developed countries, mostly in the West, though not excluding China as more and more Africans have taken to living there in recent years, an issue worth another paper. Still, in view of what is in question here in this paper, I think it makes aesthetic and artistic sense to make the statement. Image: Casa Fernando Pessoa, Wikimedia Commons Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. Ouyang Yu Ouyang Yu is a poet based in Melbourne and since his first arrival in April 1991 in Australia, he has published quite a few poems. His eighth novel, All the Rivers Run South, is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattmann in 2023. More by Ouyang Yu › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 10 November 202311 November 2023 · Subscriberthon 2023 On the final day of Subscriberthon, Overland’s most important members get to have their say Editorial Team BORIS A quick guide to another year of Overland, from your trusty feline, Boris. I liked the ginger cat story, though it made my human cry. 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