Keen to experience socialism with Chinese characteristics back in the ’80s, Bruce Humes first took a detour to Taipei and Hong Kong but went on to reside in Shanghai, Kunming and Shenzhen. He has translated two novels from the Chinese, Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, and best selling Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui. He hosts Ethnic ChinaLit, a site devoted to documenting writing in China by and about non-Han peoples, and is currently learning Turkish in Antalya.
The true tale of Bruce Humes’ stay in a Chinese hospital after being badly knifed on the streets of Shenzhen, One of the People, features in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), an anthology of essays about foreign expats in China.
Why I write
I’m not sure I can separate writing from reading, both of which have given me immense, lifelong pleasure.
As a child, I was a voracious reader of fairy tales (particularly Germanic), world history, and authors such as Jules Verne, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Lin Yutang. In my teens, it was books on psychology, anthropology and politics.
I became totally immersed when reading, and it seemed to me that there was an incredible immediacy and attractiveness to that space. I was filled with an intense desire to explore the world described in these books, to experience different cultures and master exotic tongues.
Since my first job in Hong Kong in the early ’80s as a copy editor, I’ve gone on to engage in various types of business journalism, literary translation and blog hosting. But I have to admit that when I’m really into what I’m writing, I’m sublimely oblivious to the outside world, in a way that is similar to how I felt when I was immersed in my reading as a child. The difference now is that, as the story-teller, I have a more active role in the story than before — but I still feel it has a life of its own, and I am still a reader too.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
Ever since I was four or five, I’ve tended to rise between 4:30 and 6am, and bed down at 9pm or so. I certainly never read past 10 at night, even at university; my eyes rebel.
I do my best work between 5am and noon, so I try to be at my desk then. I almost never allow myself to write during the night because I crave the sense of hope and rejuvenation that comes with the dawn.
Even for short pieces, I write better copy if I do an outline first. If I set aside three hours to write but can complete a solid outline in less time, I “reward” myself by going out for a bike ride or a dip in the Mediterranean.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Me, my PC screen, a long, white desktop with no drawers below, an unimpeded view of the city outside, and a huge dollop of sunshine. Two things best left out of this portrait: anyone else coming and going, no matter how innocently; and a TV program anywhere within earshot.
How often do you get writer’s block and how do you overcome it?
Rarely. Remembering how much I despise it when other people miss the deadlines I set for their copy gets me over “writer’s block” pronto.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
No. I know that my skills are limited, so the key is to undertake suitable assignments and refuse others. But there are times when I really have to push myself to be as creative and detailed as I should be.
How did you get started writing?
When I was five or six. I made a ritual of drawing a picture and writing a story to go with it, which I insisted on explicating to my mother—in detail—before I ran out in the snow to catch the school bus.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
… it was a tad naughty but fun. I’m referring to my translation of Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby. Quipped one recent Amazon.com reader/reviewer: “The only upside of this book was that parts of it were poetically written, but this does not justify reading it.”
Does writing change anything?
Certainly! The instant one’s writing comes into contact with a single reader, there is always the potential for the resulting ideas, emotions and images to alter that reader’s mind forever. Writing — providing it possesses a certain ‘authenticity’ in the reader’s eye — can persuade, educate, inspire and act as a catalyst for all sorts of actions.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Si Maqian (died 86 BC), the man behind Records of the Grand Historian. Despite castration and imprisonment, he went on to complete this historical classic covering more than 2,000 years. While I find much classical Chinese almost unfathomable, his writing is as refreshing and transparent as spring water.
Favorite China book?
Don’t have just one. But over the years I’ve been very moved by a handful: Half of Man is Woman, by Zhang Xianliang; Rice, by Su Tong; A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong; and The Execution of Mayor Yin, by Chen Ruoxi.
What are you working on and when is it out?
My fifth book-length Chinese-to-English translation, a novel entitled Last Quarter of the Moon that recounts the tragic twilight of the reindeer-herding Evenki, was recently published by Harvil Secker.
As host of the web site Ethnic ChinaLit: Writing by & about non-Han Peoples, I often translate an excerpt from a novel for marketing to publishers outside China. Just now I’m working on a China best-seller, Muslim Funeral, by Hui author Huo Da.
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013