Bei Dao On Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Susan Sontag and Octavio Paz
In Blue House Bei Dao not only explores his relationship with poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Tomas Tranströmer, but also sketches the more personal and sometimes seemingly banal episodes of a dissident living in exile. This is Bei Dao's first collection of essays in English translation. Those familiar with Bei Dao will notice the same lucid eye and strength that mark his poetry.
Bei Dao makes poetry out of the swirling layers of language born in the midst of crises such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, and in the seemingly insignificant human gestures and doubts that fill each day. In the essays of Blue House, philosophical evenings with Ginsberg and Paz coexist with the history of Davis, California; discussions of pop culture with his daughter, Tiantian; and memories of life in China under Mao.
From Blue House:
The Blue House is on a small island near Stockholm; the country home of Tomas Tranströmer. The house is old and small, and depends upon constant renovation and painting to enable it to withstand the grim Swedish winter.
I was in Stockholm attending a meeting at the end of March. The meeting was depressing and pointless, no doubt like similar events the world over. The day before we were to depart, my friend Annika and I arranged to go see Tomas. Stockholm to Vasteras, the city in which Tomas lives, is a two-hour journey. Annika drove a red Saab. The sky was an oppressive shade of gray, with randomly falling snowflakes.
Spring had come late this year, and the gloomy woods were still sunk in sleep; the barren open country undulating along with the highway, dominated by a tone of grayish blue.
Annika had served as a diplomat for some dozen years before unexpectedly becoming a servant of God; a pastor. This had been almost inconceivable to me, as if a long-distance runner had suddenly become a skydiver. And Annika actually does resemble an athlete — tall with short hair, and quite vigorous.
When I met her in Beijing in 1981, she was serving as the cultural attaché in the Swedish embassy. At the time, the West was still an abstract notion of something locked up behind the heavily guarded steel fences of the embassy quarter. Each time I met with Annika, we first arranged a meeting on the phone, and then I waited for her to drive me through the gates. When we drove past the guardhouse, I slid down in my seat like a sack of flour.
At the end of summer in 1983, I went with Annika to the Sichuan restaurant in Yarn Lane at Xidan. As we got out of the car, she gave me a packet of things, saying it was Tomas's new poetry collection, Barbarian Square, and included a draft of Göran Malmqvist's English translation and a letter. In the letter Malmqvist asked if I would translate Tomas's poems into Chinese —this was the first time I had heard Tomas's name.
Bei Dao has been in exile since the 1989 Tiananmen incident, has lectured around the globe, and currently teaches at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of four books of poetry in English translation and one fiction collection.
Professor Ted Huters teaches in the department of East Asian Languages and Literature at UCLA and Feng-ying Ming teaches at Whittier College.
Blue House, by Bei Dao
from Chinese by Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming
ISBN 0-939010-58-5 (paper)
5 x 7½
8 b&w photographs
Bei Dao’s memoirs in Blue House are stunning in their modesty, candour and startling clarity. As placid and yet as intense as his poetry, his anecdotes of colleagues, countries, cats, crows and the irrepressibility of expression (artistic and otherwise) mark him as one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers, something that he himself would unassumingly deny. — Akin Jeje, Cha Asian Journal January/February 2020
The essays here ring with the pure clarity of a bell...Bei Dao has structured this collection wisely. Before the later, bittersweet meditations on “Moving”, “Driving” and other pastimes of the poet in exile, he crafts several deft, unblinking character sketches of writers familiar to a Western readership...Blue House is a series of still lifes that adds up to a self-portrait.
—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle