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I’m attracted to the ways in which the mysteries of water parallel the secrets of the human experience: An Yu

The ongoing pandemic has brought to the fore, more than ever before, the realisation of individual loneliness. Suddenly we find ourselves isolated — in our room, at home, in a foreign country, not being able to meet loved ones, not even being able to say goodbye. Chinese author An Yu’s debut novel, Braised Pork, published last year in the early months of the pandemic, is replete with images of lonesomeness though it is not about the pandemic per se.

The protagonist, a young woman named Jia Jia, finds herself battling everyday loneliness after the sudden death of her husband. Her isolation is exacerbatedby the city she lives in — Beijing — with its fast-paced lifestyle, its expensive real estate, its clouds of pollution which obliterate the stars in the sky. She briefly finds comfort in Leo, the bartender across the street, but the feelings of unrest cannot be quietened so easily. She carries with her the baggage of a loveless marriage that has ended abruptly, unresolved issues with her father, and the deeply felt absence of her long-dead mother.

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Human connection

Loneliness pervades the novel, which speaks to our selves under lockdown. It makes us ask, whether we’re alone or with someone, are we really there for each other.

Yu, who currently lives in Hong Kong, says in an email interview, “I think it’s impossible to tell a story set in a modern and urban context without touching upon the realities of living within it. Part of the loneliness comes from the struggle to keep up with a city that is morphing so quickly and radically. The other part — the one that I have more trouble reconciling with — stems from a timeless place with a set of philosophical questions surrounding the possibilities of human connection and empathy.”

There is a moment in Braised Pork where Jia Jia is having a meal with her estranged father. Overwhelmed by the weight of events, Jia Jia breaks down over the plate of braised pork belly — a dish she loved as a child — fondly prepared for her by her father.

Intimate things

Braised pork belly or hong shao rou is a classic pork dish from mainland China. It is a meal reminiscent of home and childhood, symbolising deep, intimate relationships. It is prepared differently in different parts of China, with each family having its own take.

Yu’s family is no exception. It is also the first dish she learnt to cook.

“I’ve always thought that sharing a meal is one of the most intimate things people can do together. Much of this novel is about isolation, but I wanted Jia Jia having dinner with her father to be a moment of tenderness and togetherness.

Although the scene has its fair share of pain and regret, it is ultimately about redemption and forgiveness. It becomes clear, at that moment, that a family doesn’t have to be whole in order to be a family. Emotions are projected onto the plate of braised pork on the table and elevated by it — it’s a powerful image which deserved a place in the title,” says Yu.

The other interconnected theme here is the world of water. “Water is calm, violent, opaque, translucent, frightening, and beautiful. I’m attracted to the ways in which the mysteries of water parallel the secrets of the human experience,” Yu says. Even as Jia Jia finds herself drowning in chaos and grief, she is afforded moments of clarity, which allow her to surface and breathe.

Yu writes elegantly and clearly. She grew up in a family of avid readers and carried the habit of reading into her adult life. She is inspired by Borges, Han Kang, Ferrante, Ishiguro, Osamu Dazai, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, and a host of other authors.

Yu is now in the process of editing her next novel, which she was able to finish holed up in an idyllic cabin in Vermont, surrounded by the woods and snow.

“It’s been over a year now since the pandemic started. I haven’t been able to go back home to Beijing since 2019. In the intervening period, I wrote every day without fail and I discovered some brilliant authors. When my visa expired, I moved to Hong Kong,” she says.

The independent writer is based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 3:52:28 AM |

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