Local author finds parallels between rural Chinese poetry and life on the North Fork
Who would have imagined cave dwellings in China’s Ordos Desert had so much in common with the lush farmland on Long Island’s North Fork? Keming Liu, that’s who.
In 2018, the Chinese native who resides in Cutchogue visited Zhang Lian, a Chinese farmer and poet, at the cave home in which he lived as a child with his family in the 1980’s. Ms. Liu translated 100 of Mr. Lian’s poems from Chinese to English for publication in a 2022 anthology dubbed “Twilight,” a nod to the farmer’s frequent time of reflection and creative expression.
“That landscape pulled me in emotionally and aesthetically,” Ms. Liu wrote in her preface to the book, reflecting on her visit. “Growing up in cities further to the south, as well as Manhattan, I had never seen the vast prairies of northern China, where the clean, dry air opens your lungs and the endless horizon opens your eyes. It felt pure and free.”
For Ms. Liu, a college professor who currently teaches world literature and linguistics at the City University of New York, the anthology provides an opportunity to introduce U.S. readers to a relatively unknown region and lifestyle in China and shed light on the shared humanity of people living more than 6,500 miles away from one another. Based on the crowds at book readings she hosted at local libraries, including at the Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, Long Islanders have been eager to learn, asking questions and seeking additional sessions with her.
“I was actually very touched by how my American readers responded to my work and how they felt the translation and the introductory essay really allowed them to see China from a native person’s perspective,” Ms. Liu said. “Even if you do go to China, you are taken to all these tourist sites, you don’t necessarily know the country.”
Ms. Liu described the Cutchogue library as a haven that facilitated her research and writing of “Twilight.” Her subject, Mr. Lian, whose poetry has been included in numerous anthologies in his native language, did not have such a luxury growing up in the Ordos Desert. He had to travel to a much farther to get a book from a library or bookstore.
“In China, regional languages – dialects – have their unique expressions,” Ms. Liu said. “And he was able to incorporate those regional colloquial expressions in his writing, but at the same time, he connects those regional dialects with classic Chinese poetry.”
Beyond the walls of the library, Cutchogue and the vast farmland of the North Fork was a perfect backdrop for Ms. Liu’s work as a translator. Her task was not as straightforward as one might assume. It’s not enough to know two languages.
“Language is so closely intertwined with culture, and if you don’t know the culture, it’s very hard to do justice to the original text when you translate,” she explained. “I was trying to translate poetry both faithfully, and at the same time, I have to make sure the English is a good read.”
Through this translation, it becomes clear that the place Mr. Lian calls home is not so different from life on the North Fork. Sure, Mr. Lian grew up in a cave while North Forkers reside in houses. However, his lived experience as a farmer is shared by many who tend to the land across the East End.
The Cutchogue library offers several writing classes throughout the year open to all in the community. As an attendee, Ms. Liu has seen residents from all walks of life express themselves through writing.
“I participated in that writers group’s discussions a few times, and I thought to show these writers, who are farmers, electricians, plumbers, handymen, that in China, we have poets who are also farmers,” she said. “I visit goat farms, cow farms and potato farms, and I talk to these farmers, and I learn so much about land, the environment, the water and I’m interested in knowing things I didn’t really learn while studying in school. And then I started to raise chickens and I just love to get dirty in the garden.”
Ms. Liu also sees parallels in how younger generations struggle to find work and stable housing on the North Fork and in rural China.
“In Cutchogue, most of the young people go away, they don’t take up their parents or grandparents’ farm work,” Ms. Liu said “Now Wall Street people with money are buying farms, here it’s a phenomenon.”
“[Mr. Lian’s] home, when I visited him, had only seven families there,” Ms. Liu added. “The rest all moved into the cities. And within the seven families, the members of those households were all octogenarians. No one wants to stay in the countryside.”
As air quality worsens in cities due to pollution, Ms. Liu believes people in China will return to life in the countryside, a phenomenon she likens to New York City residents who have been able to relocate to eastern Long Island in recent years.
“I’m hoping that in China one day … they’re going to be like in this country, returning to the land, the soil, the natural part rather than swarming into big cities,” she said. “I think the pandemic did accelerate that in this country, looking at how many people migrated out of New York City into the countryside and I think it’s going to be interesting to see.”
Mr. Lian no longer lives in a cave in the Ordos Desert, Ms. Liu said. He and his family moved to a mud house, then a brick house his brother built in the 2000’s. He now lives about a half hour outside of his home village in a three bedroom apartment. He opens his living room as a library to tutor children in his community after school free of charge.
Here on the North Fork, Ms. Liu teaches free Chinese language classes at the Cutchogue library. She hopes “Twilight” and her and Mr. Lian’s educational and awareness efforts foster “mutual understanding” to forge “peaceful relationships,” not just between cultures across the globe, but even cultures within a few miles of one another.
“There’s such a rich spirit that city-dwellers might be missing, empathy for life, for humanity,” she continued. “We kind of forget what life really is, it’s not just moving ahead kicking everybody along the way, but lending a helpful hand to appreciate those hard laborers and to appreciate them for every grain of rice that we eat in our bowl.”