If you want to subvert the chinese government these days, try writing a poem.
Given the hypervigilance of China's censors, you'd have thought that dissenting poets would be frog-marched to the nearest labor reform camp in the time that it takes to declaim a heptasyllabic pentameter. But the apparatchiks have apparently taken their eye off the ball.
"Poetry is one of the freest media in China, but the West doesn't know it," says Ouyang Yu, the Chinese-Australian poet, author, translator and editor. "The authorities have turned a blind eye because Chinese society is increasingly focused on the economy. This is the best time for Chinese poets to flourish." Although Ouyang's verse is preoccupied with questions of identity and the migrant experience, it too is salted with the language of freedom and struggle. "Your reality is iron bars/ The shadows of the sun ten thousand miles away," he writes in "The Wanderer." In another poem, "Listening to the 80-year-old telling me a story," he writes in the voice of a survivor of communist purges: "I had to be extremely careful in all those political campaigns .../ So many of my friends had died ... some committed suicide."
Chinese writers have found space on fashionable bookshelves for a number years, but 54-year-old Ouyang is of an earlier vintage. He has a bibliography that runs to 52 books of poetry, nonfiction, fiction, translation and criticism in English and Chinese, all turned out to an intimidating schedule. Four books came out in 2008, including On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian a sweeping, imaginative cultural study. In 2009, four works of translation appeared in China. This year, he will see two novels, Loose: A Wild History and The English Class, published in English, supplementing his translations into Chinese of Hanif Kureishi's Something to Tell You and the pioneering Chinese Englishes: A Sociolinguistic History by Hong Kong academic Kingsley Bolton.
This vast corpus has been entirely generated since Ouyang arrived in Australia on a scholarship in 1991. The former English lecturer and native of Hangzhou undertook a Ph.D. at Melbourne's La Trobe University on the representation of the Chinese in Australian fiction, and his literary torrent began to flow soon after.
Clearly something about his adopted home agrees with him. On his website, Ouyang quirkily ditches the more informative prefix Chinese and simply describes himself as an "Australian poet" (which he is, having been granted citizenship in 1998). But he also retains a strong sense of detachment. One of the reasons for his prolific output is his failure to secure a position in Australian academia, leaving him plenty of time for poetry, translations and the rest. "I look at the composition of teaching staff and laugh," he says acidly. "You can count the numbers of Chinese on a few fingers." And although he has no difficulties being heard, he warns that "every country has its restrictions." In Australia, he says, "you can be punished by not being published. Repression is not a Chinese monopoly."
It isn't. But it is certainly practiced at an extremely high level in Ouyang's homeland. He reserves a special bitterness for the Chinese government, which Ouyang says imprisoned and tortured his younger brother, teacher Ouyang Ming, because of his Falun Gong membership. Ming, he says, was "a bag of bones" when he died at 41 in 2003, having been released from prison "so the authorities could avoid the blame for his death." Ouyang's forthcoming novel Loose is dedicated to him.
And it is his fiction, rather than any of the other literary forms with which he is associated, that has occupied much of Ouyang's recent time. He is the co-founder and editor of Australia's only Chinese literary journal, Otherland. But editing duties are hardly onerous. The most recent issue appeared a couple of years ago and Ouyang cannot say when the next will materialize. "The Chinese in Australia hardly ever buy books," he says. "We've survived by changing editorial policy purely Chinese language, then it became bilingual, then all English. It was quarterly, half-yearly, then irregular. There's a contemporary Chinese saying: If you want someone to go bankrupt, get him to run a magazine." But in Ouyang's case at least there will be no poverty of ideas.