An Interview with Mark Bender
By Timothy Thurston
From the crossroads of American and Chinese poetry to the back roads of Chinese minority and folk literatures, Mark Bender, Professor of Chinese literature at The Ohio State University, has traveled a long way and has many more miles ahead. In conversation with Timothy Thurston, Bender brings CLT readers along for the ride as they explore the geography of Chinese literature as few have before.
Timothy Thurston: Thank you for taking time to talk with me, and, by proxy, the readers of CLTmagazine. I’d like to start by asking how you came to study literature and folklore in China in general, and China’s ethnic minorities in particular.
Mark Bender: Well, that’s kind of a long story. When I was in college here at Ohio State, back in the ’70s, I was very interested in Ezra Pound at the time. I was reading a lot of his translations, and then I started taking a Chinese class in the second year I was here at Ohio State, and ended up majoring in it. Somewhere along the line I read an interview with Robert Payne, who had translated The White Pony, and just sort of got interested in it. Later I heard about ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg and so forth. As for poets, I think Lucien Stryk came to campus one time and gave a reading. Possibly the greatest influence in terms of translation studies was Royall Tyler, who was here for a year or so. I took classes in Noh theater and Japanese religion with him. It was a very eye-opening experience. Those were some of the things that were, I think, in my head when I was an undergraduate.
And then I took a trip to Taiwan in between my junior and senior years. It sort of just blew my mind, going there. I saw a lot of temple fairs, folk festivals, and shamans, and after the study abroad program I traveled up into some of the minority areas in the mountains. All of that left a deep impression on me.
Then, by 1980, I was in China teaching American literature on a little program started by some of the professors here at OSU. I was in Wuhan for a year. There was a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who came down from Beijing and found out that I was translating a short narrative poem from the Yi people. I had not been too aware that there were so many ethnic groups in China. I had a girl in my class who was from the Zhuang group down in Guangxi, who wrote a paper about antiphonal folksong singing. I was excited about that, so we went to the People’s Bookstore one afternoon and found a few dusty volumes on a shelf. I couldn’t read much in the way of the simplified characters, so I just bought a few of the books and took the shortest one and started translating. It was called Seventh Sister and the Serpent (Sai bo mo 赛玻嫫 or Qi mei shelang 七妹蛇郎). It’s from the Yi people in northern Yunnan Province, and, of course, I didn’t really even know who they were, but the story was interesting.
The professor from Beijing, Zha Ruqiang 查汝强, took note of this, thought it was a good thing in terms of cultural interaction, and later hooked me up with New World Press in Beijing to get the text published. He also introduced me to Professor Zhong Jingwen 钟敬文 at Beijing Normal University; he is the most famous folklorist in China of probably the last hundred years. He said to me, “Oh, you know, if you want to study the ethnic minority literature, you have to go to southern China.”
The next fall, I moved down to Nanning and stayed there six years. In my spare time, I started doing some work (to the extent that I knew how) on ethnic minority literature, and also founded and edited the comparative literature journal Cowrie: Chinese Journal of Comparative Literature with Sun Jingyao 孙景尧, who had also just arrived at Guangxi University. He had graduated from Fudan and been sent down to Guizhou during the Cultural Revolution. He was making his way back to Shanghai and eventually wound up at Shanghai Normal. We founded that journal, and we devoted one issue to ethnic minority literature.
Then I started doing fieldwork and translating other things. From about 1985 to ’87, I made trips to Guizhou and Yunnan provinces; in Guizhou I met Jin Dan 今旦 and started translating the work he had done with Ma Xueliang 马学良, which later became Butterfly Mother. I also started going to the Chuxiong area of northern Yunnan, where Li Zixian 李子贤 from Yunnan University was a great help in contacting people who had collected some of the better known epic poems back in the ’50s. I interviewed a few of them, like Guo Sijiu 郭思九, started translating some of the folksongs, and I learned more about the various Yi groups in that area.
I came back and started graduate school in the fall of ’87 here at OSU. I worked with Tim Wong, who recommended that I focus on Han material, because ethnic minority groups—that area of study—were not so hot at that time. And so I ended up writing my master’s and dissertation on Suzhou storytelling, and I spent a year in Suzhou in the early ’90s, doing a lot of fieldwork there. Most of the principles I learned in folklore here at Ohio State applied in the Suzhou context and also to the ethnic minority contexts that I’ve worked with since.
After my book about Suzhou storytelling traditions, Plum and Bamboo, came out in 2003, I decided to shift my focus full-time to the southwest, as my interest in the region had never totally faded. I’ve been working with some ethnic minority poets there, and on some of the epic traditions, since the early 2000s. That’s where I spend most of my research time; my focus is on epic poems of the southwest and related types of oral narrative.
TT: You just mentioned many different people, like Jin Dan. One of the things that has always stood out to me is how much of your work is coauthored, and is the fruit of years, or sometimes decades, of collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to collaboration as it relates to translation, research, and beyond?
MB: In my experience, collaboration has been key to pretty much everything I’ve done in China. I find that if you’ve got networks of consultants, it’s helpful on so many levels: making contacts, understanding what’s actually going on, getting much deeper insights into the language and culture, and so forth. I just enjoy collaborating with people. I always get a lot of out of it.
I’ve been working with Jin Dan’s family now since 1985. Jin Dan is still alive, but he’s in his early eighties. I’ve been working with his children Wu Yifang 吴一方 and Wu Yiwen 吴一文 for the last several years. We did another version of the Miao epics titled Hmong Oral Epics. It’s a trilingual volume that was published in late 2012 in China as a kind of monument to that epic tradition. It’s for the use of the Miao people themselves and for anyone else. The text is in the Miao Romanization, it’s in Chinese, and it’s in English. It’s a master text that incorporates sections from a number of singers. You could say it’s something like a Miao/Hmong Kalevala, reflecting local traditions in southeast Guizhou.
That collaboration was very meaningful to me, because it’s been ongoing for such a long time. It also allowed me to ask the singers questions and see what insights they offered into this epic over the course of many decades. I’ve always been inspired by Jin Dan’s personal story of helping to collect the epic in the 1950s, then losing so much of the manuscript in the 1960s and ’70s during the era of political movements, and then going back and re-collecting parts of it in the ’80s. I know that some people may see the methodology and the way some of these epics were collected as flawed, but they have their place in the greater scheme of things. It’s all part of the knowledge that’s there. It’s all part of the general context of these traditions.
I’ve also developed more recent relationships—relationships that are now long-term—with people like Aku Wuwu 阿库乌雾 (Luo Qingchun 罗庆春) from Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu. He’s a poet with whom I’ve also worked on translating folk literature, and right now we’re working on translating a large epic poem that we recorded from a tradition-bearer named Jjivo Zoqu of the Nuosu people, a subgroup of the Yi. Aku’s been key in that. We’ve both had linguistic liabilities with that project, and the collaboration between him and his people has helped mitigate a lot of that.
I’ve also had fairly long-term relationships, mostly by email, with people like Victor Mair; together we published our Columbia volume on Chinese folk and popular literature. I think we had sixty-some contributors to that project, and a lot of those people were folks that I had known for many years, or were people that I had met through other folks. And then, of course, there are guys like Kevin Stuart, whom I’ve only met, I think, once, but with whom I have been in contact for many years.
I think having these circles over these long periods of time—where you can interact with people and develop these relationships, where they get something out of it and you get something out of it—is very important. You can give back to various communities in various ways. That’s how collaboration is meaningful for me. I think it helps me do a better job than I could ever do on my own.
TT: You mentioned Aku Wuwu. To me this seems to have been one of your more successful or more enduring collaborations.
MB: I’d say a more recent one. I’d say my connection with Sun Jingyao was a very long-lasting relationship. In fact, it was my work with Sun Jingyao after I got to Guangxi University that set the model for my later collaborations.
But my partnership with Aku has blossomed. It goes beyond my work translating his Nuosu poetry into English. It goes beyond our work with the folk literature, translating that together. It’s led to this study abroad program we’ve run for the last five years where we bring students from various departments from OSU over to the Southwest University for Nationalities and pair them up with Yi students who are studying English. They hang out and study together for several weeks, and we go up into the mountains, visit their communities, and do some language workshops in the middle schools up in the mountains. I think it has really benefitted both sides.
It’s also branched out a little bit farther than just our own work. The relationship has impacted other things. I’ve been able to help Aku come to the United States at least four times, and he’s been able to travel around. He’s been all over the place. I think he’s enjoyed his time here. He wrote several collections of poems about his experiences here, and Wen Peihong 文培红 has translated those Chinese-language poems into English, and I helped with the language on that. That book will be published very soon by the Ethnic Publishing House in Beijing as a joint publication with Foreign Language Publications here at Ohio State. It’s a bilingual volume with both Chinese and English under the title Coyote Traces: Aku Wuwu’s Poetic Sojourn in America.
Later, I hope to do a volume of Aku Wuwu’s collected Nuosu-language poetry. He has kind of developed a modern Nuosu poetry, and he’s got a following of young poets who are writing in Nuosu now—I think that’s important as well. Getting some publications abroad stimulates interest among other poets. Just like when Jidi Majia 吉狄马加 was publishing in Chinese in mainstream venues the ’80s—that stimulated a lot of young ethnic minority poets to start writing because they realized it’s possible to get published. So I think that drawing attention to ethnic minority writers in China is very good in a lot of ways, especially in stimulating the younger folks to write and express themselves.
TT: I’d like to continue talking about Aku for a moment, especially his Nuosu-language work. I’ve been thinking about how culturally dense and how redolent with emotion it is. It really is meant to be recited, isn’t it?
MB: Yes, it’s a very oral poetry.
TT: So how do you translate something in writing that is clearly meant for impassioned performance, like where he might shout when he’s doing “Calling Back the Soul of Zhyge Alu,” or in “At Twilight, Longing for My Amo” when he might tear up? How do you translate that emotion?
MB: Well, I think you’ve got to put it into English so that when you read it in English, you can also scream and cry and do other things with it. That’s it. I remember back in Liangshan at an international scholarly meeting on bimo culture, I recited his poems to a group of Chinese in English, and I managed to catch their attention even though they didn’t understand the language. Just like Aku, when he performs over here in Nuosu, he gets people tearing up even though they don’t know what he’s talking about. What you have to create is an emotional equivalency. I don’t know if it’s ever “equivalent,” but you strive toward an emotional equivalency in the target language so that it can be voiced. You know? You should voice it. You should make the English version something that can be voiced, can be read or screamed out loud.
TT: What do you see for the future of Nuosu poetry? Will it be in the Nuosu language, or . . .
MB: Well, I think that there probably will be poetry in the Nuosu language for a while. As long as Aku is active, I think there will be this sort of push for a bilingual poetics in the sense that you will have some more poets writing in Nuosu but also writing in Chinese. Aku’s also in that situation, as he writes in Nuosu but he also writes in Chinese. A major reason that he writes in Chinese, or anybody writes in Chinese, is because that’s the prestige language that gets you published and gets attention on you and gets your work out there. If you’re writing only in Nuosu, then only people who can understand poetry written in Nuosu are going to get you, and you have to rely on translations into Chinese.
That is a consideration a lot of these poets are thinking about: What’s the home audience for this, and what’s the greater audience? And if the home audience is, in fact, speaking the prestige language, then you’ve got to really consider what you’re doing and where to put your energies.
It’s important for the Nuosu that they do continue writing in Nuosu, because Nuosu is a beautiful poetic medium and it’s still widely spoken. It’s really such a beautiful language in performance. Given the kind of traditional reference they can put into the poetry, the cultural depth that comes out in the language—if you’re deeply involved in the language—then I think it’s worth pursuing. But the general movement is in the direction of prestige languages or the “languages of interaction” (to borrow a phrase from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, a poet from northeast India), and those tend to be languages like Chinese and English.
Fewer and fewer people speak their native languages and start taking on these other languages instead; that’s the situation poets and authors are facing. But in many ways, people don’t necessarily have to understand the original languages for those texts to be part of a culture. We’ve seen this in many religious traditions that have languages and rituals that people don’t understand but that are still extremely important in the culture. So I think that just the fact that this guy can do stuff in Nuosu is important, because it’s important for the Nuosu community’s identity.
It all reminds me of Simon Pokagon of the Potawatomi people in Michigan and his novel Queen of the Woods that he wrote about one hundred years ago. The book was written in a mixture of English and the Potawatomi language as a monument to the language. He wanted people to realize that there had been this language before, that it was beautiful, and that people had used it daily, and that it was part of their culture. But he also realized that it was falling away, and that another language was becoming the language of interaction in so many ways, especially for the people outside that community.
TT: A lot of your work, starting with Plum and Bamboo and continuing with Butterfly Mother, has focused on oral narrative. What is it about oral narrative and long-form oral narratives in particular that attracts you or that draws you in?
MB: I like the performance dimension of it. What we put down on paper is everything but the performance dimension. Print is just a medium that might conjure up the performance dimension. In print, you’re delivering a narrative, a story that has a parallel medium in live performance. The written version can’t replace the live performance. It becomes something different. You can access the story like reading lines of poetry—you can read the words that were originally used to tell the story—but minus the expression of the spoken voice, the music. What’s missing are the gestures, the facial expressions, and the rest of the context. Of course, you may have that in your mind if you’re lucky enough to have gone to a performance of this kind of work, and all the details come to mind when you’re reading a text.
There’s just something about the oral form that attracts me. I think the mixture of meaning and emotion is very important. How emotions are conveyed through the act of performance, how the auditory and visual senses are engaged in observing this medium in which an artist is uttering his own work in front of you—it’s exciting to me. And the context of the reading adds so much. It may be in a teahouse in the Jiangnan region, but performers take you through their words to other worlds, and that’s exciting. Consider the Miao singers—it’s very, very hard to see performances of the Miao epic today; I’ve only seen partial performances of it—to hear them, the range of vocal textures they use, and the interaction between the antiphonal singers and the participating audience members is fascinating. It draws people in. It’s interactive. It’s live. There’s just something about that immediate contact that is irreplaceable. Video is not the same as the live performance. It can be close, but it does not have the same emotional power, that immediacy.
TT: So when you translate these performances into texts, articles, and books, how do you try to preserve some of that immediacy?
MB: There’s been a lot written on this, the transition from performance to text. Elizabeth Fine and so many other people have written on this. But for me, again, it’s going back to creating something in English that, when you voice it, when you pick it up and read it, it creates some sort of an emotion, or something that goes beyond just normal speech, hopefully. When you do this, it becomes a kind of poetry. You have to be able to craft the language to do that, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work as well.
TT: Your work often crosses genres, ethnic groups, language families, and media. I’m thinking, for example, of how every one of your books moves across these, from Plum and Bamboo, which is local Han in Suzhou pingtan, to Butterfly Mother, which is a Miao epic but it’s also antiphonal (like pingtan), to Tiger Traces, which is Nuosu poetry. Can you talk about how you approach these very disparate tasks?
MB: In graduate school I took a number of courses on folklore theory, which in part helped me figure out what I had already been doing when I was living in China in the 1980s. I like to get a good sense of the culture, and that means going and having experiences in that culture. One of the things I do is use the actual original texts. I only had parts of the Miao text in Miao, so I read up on Miao grammar and got some basic pronunciation, so I gained some sense of the texture of the language, and that helps with the Chinese translation. But you can’t trust that completely. That’s why you have to work really, really closely with consultants, and ask them what they’ve done with the text. Some of the texts are more difficult.
For the Suzhou pingtan, I recorded performances and then had them transcribed. Sun Jingyao took me to a story house the first week I was in Suzhou, back in 1991, sat me down, and said, “You listen to this storyteller perform.” After about three weeks of this, I’d started to understand a fair amount of what was going on. I attended something like a hundred different performances and eventually got my listening comprehension up to a somewhat useful degree. Then, to all of that experience, I add transcriptions.
You do your best to immerse yourself in the language, but you have to realize that this is a limited project. Ezra Pound said, “I only have to know the language of that poem I’m translating.” I think you have to take it a little bit farther than that. When it comes to the Yi poetry, I’ve actually tried to learn how to speak Yi. I haven’t gotten really far on that, but I do have a basic vocabulary, which is helpful when you’re doing translation. And a lot of that work you’re doing is line-by-line, just decoding. You sit down with people and go word-for-word: “What is the Chinese equivalent of this?” And then we’ll figure out an English equivalent. Then we’ll go back and re-cast the whole thing. It’s a little bit tedious. That’s one aspect of it.
The cultural context is basically everything that gets mentioned in a poem, or everything that gets mentioned in the oral epic. We go to the countryside and find out what the heck something is to the best extent that we can. We interview people: “What exactly does this mean?” “What is this flower?” “What is this plant?” We try to find out what the things are, what kind of animal is being talked about here, what kind of tool, what kind of fabric, what kind of cooking process, what kind of ritual, what is this object used in the ritual. Sometimes you get various opinions about what this thing might be, but at least you get a range of ideas of what’s going on. That helps you get into the texture of the thing, and I think that it’s extremely important to do that. You cannot just guess and say, “It might be this.” You have to really do your due diligence.
Sometimes even translating a type of tree that is mentioned is not so simple. It’s called det dod in the local Miao/Hmong dialects, which appear in Butterfly Mother. But is it a sweet gum tree or is it a maple tree? Most dictionaries will say fengshu 枫树 is a maple tree. But if you go there and look at the trees and ask people, “What is this tree here?” you find it’s some sort of a gum tree. Now, the leaves look very similar. I think they’re even related. It’s little stuff like that, which if you translate this way or that, I think does make a difference. Of course, you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Recently in the afterword to his Hmong Oral Epics, Jin Dan actually wrote up the whole inquiry into the actual species of the tree. There are several interpretations. I prefer the word “sweet gum” to other appellations, but my point is that it’s very important, especially in this folk material, to know what they’re talking about. What sort of animal is this? What sort of plant? Getting it right is important because these things may play in rituals or other activities and all have certain associations with them.
TT: You mentioned that in recent years you’ve been expanding your regional interests toward India and especially northeast India, where there are a lot of hill tribes. What was the impetus for this change? And why do you think this is important?
MB: I’d heard about Tibeto-Burman languages being spoken in India, but it had never clicked with me as to what was going on there. Then I had a chance to go to an International Society for Folk Narrative Research conference in Shillong, Meghalaya, in 2011. The organizer of that conference was Desmond Kharmawphlang, who is a poet and a folklorist. He introduced me to Temsula Ao, who is a fantastic poet, and a number of other poets from Manipur. I’m getting into some of the Manipur oral traditions right now, and I’ve made a couple trips up to Nagaland. It’s a fascinating area with various origin stories that point over toward China, Thailand, and other places. That’s one of the reasons it attracted me: people living in the eastern Himalayan uplands who have some sort of relationship to southwest China. And that fascinates me. I’ve discovered that they have a poetry scene there with poets who are writing poems that are eerily similar to what you hear in southwest China. Now I’m working on an anthology that ties this region together in terms of poems written around the themes of ethnicity and the environment. So that’s an interest that suddenly blossomed here in this stage of my career.
TT: A serendipitous meeting of interests.
MB: I’m really open. When all the signs are pointing in one direction, I tend to follow.
TT: I’m glad you mentioned the environment. Recently you’ve been looking at what appears to be a burgeoning field of eco-criticism. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about eco-criticism, how you got started on it, and tell us more about this eco-critical side to your work.
MB: First, I have to clarify that I’m not an eco-critic. I am, however, interested in literature of the environment. I view this as a direct outgrowth of my work on epics and folksongs of southwestern China. I realized very, very early on—in fact, with that first translation of “Seventh Sister and the Serpent” that was published by New World Press in Beijing in 1982—that these cultures seemed to have a . . . maybe not primary, but close to primary, link with the environment. There were a lot of references to the use of various wild plants, to animals and hunting lore, and travels through the mountain landscapes. You can’t have those experiences and gain the lore unless you’re there, so it was a real reflection of their environment. Somehow or another, even in the rather highly edited texts that were collected and published in the ’50s, and then republished in the ’80s, this really comes through.
The environmental connection resonated with my own background: growing up part of the time in Appalachia, where you’re out in the woods. You’re out in the field. You have a different relation with the environment than, say, someone who has a more urban-based experience. And so, in the early 2000s I had been asked by Bamo Qubumo 巴莫曲布嫫 and Bamo Ayi 巴莫阿依—a fantastic pair of Yi sisters who are so important to creating an international profile for the Yi people—to translate Aku Wuwu’s poetry. And after starting to work with him and seeing what his poetry was about (how there was so much of the importance of the environment mixed with themes of ethnic change and cultural change), it resonated with me in ways similar to what I had experienced while translating folk literature: sensitivity to the local environments and the cultural adaptations to those environments. It’s like “Wow! What’s going on with this this?” And then I started to realize more clearly that there was a literature of the environment going on.
But I never went to a conference on eco-criticism until 2013, in Florida. There I met Joni Adamson and Juan Carlos Galeano and got turned on to some of the contemporary trends, which meshed with my awareness of the indigenous aspect of eco-criticism going back to Gary Snyder and ethnopoetics. But I’m more interested in translating and publishing these works from southwest China and actually introducing them to a larger audience, than I am theorizing on eco-criticism, because I think that the eco-critics in the Chinese field now are very advanced. That field has grown very, very rapidly in the last few years, and they’re taking this as criticism, critiques of the criticism at this stage. I’m more interested in introducing poets and their work for this particular project.
TT: And that sounds like a good point to end on. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
Timothy Thurston earned his doctorate under the direction of Mark Bender in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State
Mark Bender is a professor of Chinese literature and folklore at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. His research interests include oral performance, folklore, and ethnic minority literature in China, Northeast India, and elsewhere. He lives in the small town of Shawnee Hills with his wife, Fu Wei, near their son, Marston.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2