San Mao's desert tales in English

In the 1970s, Chinese writer San Mao moved to the Sahara desert.

She dreamt of being the first woman to cross it, but settled for living there, on the cusp of a landscape at times as mysterious to her as the surface of the moon, as strange as a Surrealist painting.

“Every day as the sun went down,” she wrote in her story A Knife On A Desert Night, “I’d sit on the roof until the sky was totally dark and feel an immense loneliness, out of nowhere, deep in my heart.”

The late writer, a restless spirit who personified wanderlust for millions of Chinese readers, has had her best-selling 1976 collection Stories Of The Sahara translated for the first time into English.

Singaporean novelist Sharlene Teo, who penned the foreword for the English edition, recalls encountering San Mao through songs she wrote, such as Olive Tree, sung in 1979 by Taiwanese singer Chyi Yu.

“I always associated her with wistfulness and the intrepid spirit and courageousness to not be constrained or defined by societal standards of the time,” says Teo, 32, in an e-mail interview.

“She’s significant as a trailblazing iconoclast, a bohemian, a cultural nomad before that even entered the everyday lexicon. The inclusiveness and open-heartedness she demonstrates in her pieces is more timely than ever.”

San Mao, also known as Echo Chan, took her nom de plume from a cartoon character with only three strands of hair on his head.

Born Chen Mao-ping in Chongqing in 1943, she grew up in Taiwan. A passionate bibliophile who devoured classics such as Dream Of The Red Chamber at a young age, she chafed against the restrictions of school and eventually dropped out. After studying philosophy at university, she began her vagabond life.

In Spain, she met the man who would become her husband, engineer Jose Maria Quero y Ruiz, with whom she moved to the Sahara after she read about it in the National Geographic magazine and found herself homesick for this land she had never been to.

Stories Of The Sahara, which collects columns she wrote for a Taiwanese newspaper, is part-travelogue, part-memoir. It tells of the couple’s experiences living in the desert amid rising tensions between the native Sahrawi people and the occupying Spanish.

San Mao is sanguine about the desert’s hardships, from the scorching heat to their struggle to cobble together a home on limited funds. At one point, she and her husband go fossil-hunting after dark, only for him to fall into a quagmire and her to be assaulted by three men while trying to get help.

Her tales can be funny, such as when she attempts to get a driving licence despite having driven illegally for some time.

Others are harrowing. She witnesses Sahrawi traditions such as child marriage and slavery, as well as the horrific lynching of her friend, whom a mob condemned as sexually promiscuous.

Throughout her stories, she returns again and again to the beauty and desolation of the desert, stained at sunset the “red of fresh blood”.

Stories Of The Sahara was translated into English by New York-based translator Mike Fu, 34, who first received a copy of the book as a birthday present when he turned 26.

“It was my first encounter with San Mao and her voice and style were absolutely mesmerising,” he recalls in an e-mail interview. “I read it on the subway each day and felt an unexpected kinship echoing from many decades and thousands of miles away.”

He began translating some chapters independently for his Master of Fine Arts programme, and was eventually hired by British publisher Bloomsbury in 2016.

“My biggest concern was about capturing the liveliness of her prose and producing a translation that could appeal to English readers while also satisfying her original fans,” he says. He referenced the Spanish and Catalan versions, which had come out a few years before his, and had a long dialogue with the Dutch translator Annelous Stiggelbout, who was working simultaneously on her version.

“I hope my translation will allow English readers around the world to access San Mao’s cheeky humour and joie de vivre and appreciate her sensibilities as a global citizen and well-travelled polyglot,” he says.

“I’m also pleased to contribute to the diversification of Chinese literature in translation, as San Mao’s work is a bit of a counterpoint (to say the least) to writing by mainland Chinese male authors, for example, whose ethos and thematic concerns arise from very different circumstances.”

In 1979, San Mao’s husband drowned in a diving accident off the coast of La Palma, one of the Canary Islands. She returned to Taiwan, where she taught creative writing and took on travel writing assignments. In 1991, at the age of 47, she committed suicide.

She published more than 20 works during her lifetime, including a screenplay, Red Dust (1990).

In Stories Of The Sahara, she muses that “a life plain as porridge” would never be an option for her.

“I wanted a taste of many different lives, sophisticated or simple, highbrow or low. Only then would this journey be worthwhile.”

  • Stories Of The Sahara ($25.95) is available here
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