In 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese imperial Army captured the city of Nanking (Nanjing), the then capital of the Republic of China, and carried out a massacre in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians including women and children were slaughtered and thousands of women and girls were raped. This shameful episode from the history, known as Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, makes the backdrop of Julie O’ yang’s novel Butterfly.
The eponymous protagonist of this heartachingly beautiful novel, Butterfly, is a married Chinese woman and calligrapher who has lost her teenage son in the Nanking Massacre. Years later, still trying to overcome her great loss, she happens to meet a mysterious young man almost of her dead son’s age and starts a torrid love affair with him. But, then she discovers a horrible secret about the young man and faces the biggest dilemma of her life.
The book is not just a love story with darker shades but also is a treatise on the futility and brutality of wars between nations and a critique on the idea of nation state. Historically insightful with political undertones, the novel has fully fleshed out multi-layered and credible characters. Written beautifully and structured intelligently, you get hooked to the story right from the first page. The denouement is also equally fascinating.
Review – Butterfly: A Novel by Julie O’yang
Chinese mythology is filled with tales of fish-women, erotic enchantresses who can disguise their scales, perhaps for generations, in order to lure the human men they love. These archetypal creatures have been re-imagined by Dutch-Chinese author Julie O’yang in her fascinating new book Butterfly: A Novel, and they exist in a world that incorporates the modernity of Shanghai with memories of the Nanking massacre and the romantic and sexual torments of a young doctor.
O’yang has created an intriguing and quite complex world in this novel, and it makes a fascinating read for anyone interested in China and Chinese culture and history.
Butterfly: A Novel is also about women and the problematic tropes of femininity at work in Chinese culture. A repeated motif in the book is the presence of the Buddhist Goddess Guanyin, a feminine figure of the divine who is of enormous importance in the popular religious imagination, and oddly powerful in a religion and culture more noted for favouring masculine power. But O’yang’s Goddess of Mercy is not the delicate beauty of Chinese iconography. She is cruel and occasionally whimsical, creating torments along with mercies. I must say I admired O’yang’s bravery in tackling this particular archetype of feminine perfection. Because of course it is doctrinally correct – along with her merciful forms, Avalokitesvara is a wrathful creature whose charge is also to protect and defend the dharma.
“They say the butterfly fish was made by Bodhisattva Guanyin after she had had a strange dream.”
The Goddess toys with creation in her dreams, and much of this novel inhabits the same, dream-like, fantastical world in which fish-women exist alongside (though hidden away from) modernity. The sexy and sassy young nurses dress provocatively and go to all-night dance parties in sophisticated modern Shanghai, while moldering away in an attic lies a pathetically beautiful creature that longs for her old states of being and lives in a state of perpetual, but beautiful, regret.
The mythology of the fish-person has resonances across cultures, and it is frequently associated with a kind of female perfection and beauty which is irresistible to man. I was reading Butterfly: A Novel while travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, where in daily life I frequently heard similar legends and even saw them represented. O’yang’s act of creation is, self-consciously or not, a step along in this older tradition of story-building, and the novel is rendered all the more complex and fascinating because of this.
It is a novel of grief and of desire, and at one point O’yang writes, quite starkly: “desire is so strong you can’t afford the consequences.” But of course, it is the consequences of desire (which inevitably include death and destruction) that go to make up the events of this novel. More particularly, it is desire mis-applied, or perversely directed towards that which might cause most chaos. It is dangerous and queer desire, the love of the wrong, and the forbidden connection between creatures that should never have met – in O’yang’s book a fish-woman and a Japanese soldier. All of this, mind, taking place in the fraught background of World War Two Nanking, a place that has provided some rich literary pickings for Chinese writers, from Ye Zhaoyan to May-lee Chai.
Julie O’yang has created a glittering magic-realist novel that explores desire and the cruel capriciousness of sexual attraction. It is a brave and sometimes challenging novel, and one that will enchant anyone interested in love, relationship and the eternal echoes of Chinese culture and mythology.
Jeremy Fernando interviews
Dorya Glenn: New European, a temporary refugee
Jeremy: If to write (scribere) is also to tear, to scratch out as one is scratching in, then what are the marks that remain in this text that we are reading, that we are all attempting to respond to.
Julie: Somebody asked me recently if writing is a violent act…
Writing involves the transformation of both the writer and the reader. Sometimes the writer has to kill herself to become. In The Picture of Dorya Glenn, the writer possesses an ink laser that she called a Space Handgun and the photographer possesses a one-eyed monster which is his camera. These “tools” are both innocent and powerful at the same time. Innocent because you can’t be creative without innocence and powerful because they change our reality.
Jeremy: A dear teacher and friend, Hubertus von Amelunxen, once said, perhaps the catastrophe is that one is photogenic, that one is photographable, and thus can be caught in time. Yet at the same time, once written into time, one is potentially always also timeless, until such time that the medium on which one is written disappears (back) into time. What, dear Filip, is your relationship with time at the very moment in which you are pulling the trigger, sentencing your subject to a timeless time.
Julie: Filip is a man of image. He keeps his mouth shut, so I think I will steal his moment.(laughs) When I saw Filip’s work for the first time years back, I said: WOW! This was my first reaction. WOW! This guy makes sex queens, simultaneously trashy but refined and sublimely cultic. It seemed to me like an unfading dream vision. Not superficial. When he invited me to work together on a photo novel, I immediately wanted to do something epic, something that alternated between the banal and the surreal. I want us to be entertaining as well as profound. So one of the themes — or one current issue, if you will — we address is the relationship between the Word and the Image. Which of the two is more powerful in today’s social media landscape? Another important theme is the privacy versus surveillance culture, which is underlined by our use of security camera images.
Filip: It is true that I try to avoid words as much as I can, with a good reason. Being an artist who paints with my lens, I have always had a love-hate relationship with time: How to understand time. To talk about time publicly is like driving a car at 4 o’clock in the morning – I just want to go very fast and hit home as soon as possible (laughs). I believe every pronounced syllable limits the experience of the viewer and takes away his freedom of imagination. Image is my way of thinking, which I trust, even though I accept their temporary nature. A powerful thought occupy its own space, just like a powerful image.
Jeremy: One aspect of staging is beauty; another aspect — at least according to Artaud — is it’s ability to move, to shock one out of stupor: do you see these two notions as contradictory, or is there a deeply shocking aspect to beauty?
Julie: This is a tricky one. We take different cultural elements out of their context for the viewers to look at them again with a fresh eye. I think this is what art does: art is a sincere attempt at ideological reconciliation and a sincere attempt at being human. We want to create Dorya Glenn as an icon that unifies. Dorya Glenn project is about cross-cultural pollination. On the one hand, we intend to address urgent issues and communicate a transcultural, transracial message, on the other hand we want to encourage multi-disciplinary collaborations between artists from different roads and contribute to our globalizing world. The Picture of Dorya Glenn is feminist science fiction that reflects here and now and today’s reality, and one section is about immigration crisis…So yes, maybe beauty is shocking because every beauty has a beast in it.
Jeremy: Michel Deguy teaches us that poetry doesn’t show the invisible nor the very visible; poetry instead shows the slightly visible. When i read your work, dear Julie; when i see your work, dear Filip; i sense a poetic approach to your respective crafts: could you give us a glimpse, a look into the usually slightly invisible aspects, of your processes?
Julie: I definitely start with a sentence in my head that is the first sentence of my novel. This sentence can be inspired by a song, by music, or by a strong image. Dorya Glenn started with a press photo. Very visual.
Filip: I depart from a guts feeling that is fed by external impulses. It can be art — mostly it’s art in my case — but it can also be a situation; a scene I observe from my chair while I’m sipping my coffee or enjoying a Belgian beer on a terrace.
Jeremy: And perhaps on a more personal level, what moves you to make, to attend to the world through your crafts?
Julie: I’m not sure if one can be personal as an artist. One can be intimate. Being an artist, you have a duty and to fulfill this duty your job is to make your communication successful. Art isn’t therapeutic. Art deals with relevance. The Picture of Dorya Glenn is a murder mystery but it’s essentially a project about hope. Dorya Glenn claims her identity as a new European.
[Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School and a Fellow of Tembusu College. He is the author of five books—amongst them Writing Death (The Hague/ Tirana: Uitgeverij, 2011)]
My dream is yours … or, butterfly kisses …
by Singapore Review of Books
Isn’t it quite amazing how the appearance of a butterfly can inject a stutter or pause into any conversation? Words and words pour out of the animals in assembly, before they are all of a sudden arrested by the passing flight. Heads turn to trace a lilting poetics, attempting to close the distance with this seemingly awkward beauty. There are no straight lines here, only a relative arrival and departure to bracket a brilliant and bewildering trajectory, surging and lurching in a vibrating and nomadic line avant la lettre.
(Sean Smith, ‘I Seek You: Countdown to Stereoscopic Tear’)
Confronting us with its subtitle, Butterfly foregrounds itself as nothing more, nor less, than a novel—allowing, inviting, us to flutter through its tale. Keeping in mind that what is novel is also new; whilst never forgetting Umberto Eco’s teaching that “what is new is old.” It is, after all, a revisiting of the past—the Second World War & Sino-Japanese War (1931-45). But also constantly reminds us that all revisitings always already occur in the present, haunted by the possibility of revisions, revisionism, spectral visions.
Butterfly: fluttering between ripping and crying: a stereoscope to tears: hearing ruptures whilst glimpsing tears; bears witness to tearing whilst tuning to registers of weeping. Attempting to inscribe some of the different calls of history—some of the cries of stories forgotten. Sometimes, difficult tales, tales that resist being told—Nanking amongst them. And in her tale, surrounded by inhumanity that is war, Julie O’Yang opens the dossier of the most human of all notions: love. By asking the difficult question of ‘amidst all of this madness, what is love?’
Never letting us forget Ian Curtis’ warning that “love will tear us apart.”
For, to love one has to attend to—without subsuming another, some other, under ourselves. Which means that to love, one has to be willing to risk oneself, to open oneself, to allow oneself to be wounded, torn apart. In new ways, ways that we have yet to understand, come across, ways we do not yet have a name for.
Never letting us forget that writing itself is haunted by echoes of scribere; scratching, tearing.
And it is this task that O’Yang sets herself: responding to the unknown in both history and to the story that she is attempting to tell. Which is why the novel can never do anything other than move, touch, respond to the in between. In this sense, the novel itself is precisely the relation between her story and history. Which is why “a few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interest of the truth” (165). For the truth is precisely in its telling: never forgetting that we are also never using our own language—borrowed, stolen, an act of memory.
Not in the banal post-modern sense that all truths are constructed, composed, narrated. But more profoundly that truth itself is a name for what is yet to be named—“avant la lettre.”
And if truth is a name for something that is yet to have a name, this suggests that it is a future possibility—a dream. Which is why there was no other way for Butterfly to end but with a tale on dreams, dreams of butterflies.
Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then he awoke. Now he wonders: Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man.
But just because it is all quite possibly a dreams doesn’t mean that one is free from risks. For, one must never forget that if it is always only to come, one can never be sure of what awaits—one can also never be sure if one is always only waiting. And in opening oneself to possibility, one is always also opening oneself up to being touched by another: for, if dreams are potentialities to come, one’s dreams and another’s might well be the same dream.
To dream—to love.
But most of all, one can never be sure if one might just awake.
I met you in my dreams.
If I had known that I was dreaming,
I would not have woken.
I miss you.
(Japanese 12th Century poem)
Butterfly by Julie O’Yang – a book review
I met Julie O’ Yang, author of ‘Butterfly’ in Oct 2011. She had flown in from Netherlands to take part in the South Asian literature festival in London. I was pleasantly surprised by her unassuming and modest yet very confident attitude.
Julie has published fiction and articles in various publications worldwide. Apart from being an author Julie is also a visual artist and Butterfly has some of her own illustrations in it.
The book cover shows a vague woman’s face underwater, a very artistic choice in keeping with the story.
Butterfly is a love story that spans life and death, magic and reality and parallel reality.
The author has woven mythology and history skillfully together to create a mysterious atmosphere in the story that keeps readers hooked till the end.
The butterfly motto has been used repeatedly to create and reinforce the idea that like a butterfly changes its form and gets reborn time and again, so does love in-spite of all the odds against it be it war, Nanking Massacre, or the darkest secret.
“They say butterfly fish was made by Bodhisattva Guan Yin after she had a strange dream. Guan Yin looked at the star-studded body hauling a fantail so black like ink spilled in water. At that moment a butterfly floated past her. One thing other fish don’t do, though. A real butterfly fish can change into a beautiful woman at night.”
The love scenes are infused with Chinese myths and strong imagery that gives it a mystical tinge.
“I decided to love him. I decided I would accept him for everything he was. I learned to forgive and how to forgive. The world happens, we can choose how much it happens. At the end of the day no-one loses or wins. There is no future living in the past. For all I know, we could start finding peace and happiness between two human beings. To love, to be loved is the true gift of our heart. Love is not mediocre. Love is our freedom.”
“You were pregnant by a man-killer, didn’t that bother you?”
The book is littered with metaphors and beautiful imagery that spell binds its readers and gives them wings to take them along on an unpredictable, conflicting journey of a butterfly.
I found it hard to put it down until the very end although the end itself is a bit lacking in clarity may be done so intentionally by the author to maintain the aura of mystery.
The book Butterfly all in all reads like a Bestseller and the readers will find it a page turner. A must read for all.