Darren Huang reviews the first English translation of Sanmao’s classic travelogue of love and loss in the Sahara.

Sanmao, Stories of the Sahara, translated by Mike Fu (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 395pp.

In the 1970s, during my parents’ generation, the Taiwanese people still lived within the repressive atmosphere of martial law enacted by the Kuomintang and with little recourse of escape from the confines of their country. In 1976, the Taiwanese writer Sanmao published her travelogue-memoir Stories of the Sahara in the Chinese-speaking world. In intimate, ironic pieces that resemble short fiction, Sanmao describes her daily life among Spanish transplants and the indigenous Sahrawi people. The translator and scholar Mike Fu made her work available to an international audience for the first time in 2019 through an overdue and elegant translation into English. The translation does not feel dated and successfully retains all of Sanmao’s playful humor, humane tenderness and vitality of spirit. The modern reader is also still captivated by the protagonist’s compelling persona – one of insatiable curiosity, female assertiveness and a vast capacity for love. The timeless work is both a cultural commentary from an Eastern-yet-novel cosmopolitan perspective and a bracingly candid account of a woman’s spiritual transformations as she invents a new life for herself in the desert.  

Despite her boldness and fierce independence, Sanmao is capable of refraining from immediate judgement and of deep empathy. She befriends individuals who are marginalized by the rest of society, such as a mute slave and Shahida, a woman reputed to be promiscuous and a Catholic in a homogenously Muslim town. Her most intimate relationships all have the qualities of intensity of connection, directness and purity of expression. Sanmao remains a contemporary figure because she is a self-described “citizen of the world,” instinctively seeing past superficial trappings such as appearances, reputation and class to one’s essential humanity. There is a comic scene when a group of indigenous nomads accuse Sanmao of stealing their souls with her camera, which they think of as a mystical object. She is characteristically sympathetic and “releases” their souls by opening her camera and exposing the roll of film. But perhaps the concerns of the nomads are not so absurdly misplaced because Sanmao possesses the ability to capture with her mind the deepest aspects of other souls.

Mike Fu has judiciously selected the pieces within this edition to create a comprehensive but accessible introduction for English-speaking readers. His selection demonstrates Sanmao’s impressive range, from the comical picaresque in “Apothecary” and the sympathetic character sketches of “Looking for Love” and “Child Bride” to the wistful meditations on desert life in “Hearth and Home.” Fu includes one of Sanmao’s most accomplished stories, “Crying Camels,” which has been excluded from a number of Chinese editions. The story is significant because it makes evident Sanmao’s complex position as someone who feels allegiances to her former home of Spain and sympathy for the indigenous people. She straddles both the world of the colonizer and that of the colonized and she doesn’t refrain from condemning either side for intolerance. The collection is arranged so that the tone of the stories darkens from one of levity, wonder, and optimism to one of melancholy and introspection. “Crying Camels’” mournful tale of loss and disillusionment functions as a satisfying and conclusive bookend to Sanmao’s life in the Sahara.

Sanmao’s rollicking voice is resistant to translation because it shifts unexpectedly within individual stories between registers of playful derision, philosophical seriousness and sympathetic tenderness. It is also difficult because Sanmao’s original Chinese is colloquial and idiomatic, especially in many of her hyperbolic descriptions. Fu’s translation employs a conversational and spare English that doesn’t smooth over Sanmao’s shifts in register but recreates them through a deft control of tone. Fu resorts to common English idioms, such as “drawing a blank,” to approximate the conceptual meaning of Sanmao’s original rather than choosing a more literal interpretation. Nevertheless, the work seems both immediate and intimate, like a series of diaristic accounts, and never reads awkwardly or foreign, like a translated text.

Mike Fu’s important translation provides Western readers access to Sanmao’s stories and meditations for the first time. Sanmao offers a unique double perspective in Western travel writing because despite her allegiance to the colonizing country, she observes the indigenous people with deep empathy and inquisitiveness. What is also very contemporary in Sanmao is her desire for profound connection as an escape from an inner void of loneliness and alienation. In reading the collection, we are most impressed by Sanmao’s presentness. She is, in accordance with Henry James’ immortal prescription for the writing life, “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” She possesses an inexhaustible wonder for what seem to be the most unremarkable of things, such as the mute slave or a camel skull or pink stones decorated by an anonymous man in the street. She seemed to live with more intensity than anyone else and her warmth is communicated through the page, even when mediated by translation. My Taiwanese mother remarked, “People back then visited London, Paris or Rome, never a place like the Sahara. We could never imagine a place like the Sahara.” Her narratives of Taiwan suggested the insularity of the country in the 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese language had been employed for the uses of misdirection, manipulation and oppression, but for my mother and many in the Chinese-speaking world, Sanmao’s voice was direct, authentic, and liberating. In today’s world, with our borders indefinitely closed and many forced into self-isolation, we may be susceptible to feelings of alienation, confinement and disengagement. Perhaps it is an opportune time to read Sanmao as a way of reengaging with a more conscious way of living, of feeling what it is like to live with intensity of emotion, freedom and receptiveness. Like my mother, I couldn’t imagine a Taiwanese woman of her generation drifting across the desert until I read Sanmao. The aliveness and the imaginative force of Sanmao’s writing compel us to believe in so strange and mystical a place.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has been published in Bookforum, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review and other publications. He is also an editor at Full Stop.

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