garage talk: Mian Mian

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On April 23, 2008 the haudenschild Garage held a Garage Talk with Shanghai-based author which included a premiere reading from her forthcoming novel, Panda Sex, and a conversation about her infamous novel, Candy. From April 20 – 26, 2009 Mian Mian was an Artist-in-Residence at the haudenschild Garage as part of the hG, Spare Parts project The Last Book.

For this project, the haudenschild Garage, Spare Parts produced an homage to “the book” in the age of the conquest of the Kindle. Steve Fagin wished to resuscitate the magnificence of the illuminated manuscript as the world turned toward darkness. Perhaps electronic technology could be used, not to leave the book on the dustbin of history, but to reconstitute a forgotten past where words and images danced in each other’s arms.

To this end the haudenschild Garage produced and constructed a one of a kind book that included text, drawings, moving images and sounds. Its construction in the medieval, supersized tradition consisted of three illuminated folios each eighteen and a half inches high, thirteen inches wide and three inches deep.

To make this more than a dirge for the dead, a proper Joycian Wake, we incorporated into our project the live and kicking writing skills of Mary Gaitskill (Two Girls Fat and Thin), the macabre visual lyricism of Leslie Thornton (Peggy and Fred in Hell) and YouTube, the MySpace-with-a-twist drawings of Davina Semo, the retro-futurist music mix of Greg Landau, and as the piece de resistance, Shanghai’s notorious and ever so talented bad girl author Mian Mian as one of our performers with Monica Jovanovich-Kelley and the Kindle. This bouillabaisse was concocted by Steve Fagin.

On April 26, 2009 The Last Book was performed at the Schindler House, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles.

Excerpts from Candy

On the Edge

When it rains I often think of Lingzi. She once told me about a poem that went: “Rain falling in the spring, / Is heaven and earth making love.” These lines were a puzzle to us, but Lingzi and I spent a lot of time trying to unravel various problems. We might be trying to figure out germs, or the fear of heights, or even a phrase like “Love is a fantasy you have while smoking your third cigarette.” Lingzi was my high school desk mate, and she had a face like a white sheet of paper. Her pallor was an attitude, a sort of trance.

Those days are still fresh in my mind. I was a melancholy girl who loved to eat chocolate and did poorly in school. I collected candy wrappers, and I would use these, along with boxes that had once contained vials of medicine, to make sunglasses.

Soon after the beginning of our second year of high school, Lingzi’s hair started to look uneven, with a short clump here, a longer hank there. There were often scratch marks on her face. Lingzi had always been extremely quiet, but now her serenity had become strange. She told me she was sure that one of the boys in our class was watching her. She said he gave her steamy looks—steamy was the word she used, and I remember exactly how she said it. She was constantly being encircled by his gaze, she said. It made her think all kinds of unwholesome, selfish thoughts. She insisted that it was absolutely out of the question for her to let anything distract her from her studies. Lingzi believed that this boy was watching her because she was pretty. This filled her with feelings of shame. Since being pretty was the problem, she had decided to make herself ugly, convinced that this would set her back on the right path. She was sure that if she were ugly, then no one would look at her anymore; and if nobody was looking at her, then she could concentrate on her studies. Lingzi said she had to study hard, since, as all of us knew, the only guarantee of a bright future was to gain admission to a top university.

Throughout the term, Lingzi continued to alter her appearance in all kinds of bizarre ways. People quit speaking to her. In the end most of our classmates avoided her altogether.

As for me, I didn’t think that Lingzi had been that pretty to begin with. I felt that I understood her—she was simply too high-strung. Our school was a “key school,” and it was fairly common for a student at a school like ours to have a sudden nervous breakdown. Anyway, it wasn’t clear to me how I could help Lingzi. She seemed so calm and imperturbable.

Then one day Lingzi didn’t come to school. And from then on, her seat remained empty. The rumor was that she had violent tendencies. Her parents had had to tie her up with rope and take her to a mental hospital.

Everyone started saying that Lingzi had “gone crazy.” I started eating chocolate with a vengeance, and that was the beginning of my bad habit of bingeing on chocolate whenever I’m anxious or upset. Even today, eleven years later, I haven’t been able to break this habit, with the result that I have a very serious blood sugar problem.

I sneaked into the hospital to see her. One Saturday afternoon, wearing a red waterproof sweat suit, I slipped in through the chain-link fence of the mental hospital. In truth, I’m sure I could have used the main entrance. Although it was winter, I brought Lingzi her favorite Baby-Doll brand ice cream, along with some preserved olives and salty dried plums. I sat compulsively eating my chocolates while she ate her ice cream and sweet olives. All of the other patients on the ward were adults. I did most of the talking, and whenever I finished saying something, no matter what the subject was, Lingzi would laugh. Lingzi had a clear, musical laugh, just like bells ringing. But on this day her laughter simply struck me as weird.

What did Lingzi talk about? She kept repeating the same thing over and over: The drugs they give you in this hospital make you fat. Really, really fat.

Sometime later I heard that Lingzi had left the hospital. Her parents made a series of pleas to the school, asking the teachers to inform everyone that Lingzi was not being allowed any visitors.

One rainy afternoon, the news of Lingzi’s death reached our school. People said that her parents had gone out one day, and a boy had taken advantage of their absence. He had brought Lingzi a bouquet of fresh flowers. This was 1986, and there were only two flower stands in all of Shanghai, both newly opened. That night, Lingzi slashed her wrists in the bathroom of her family’s apartment. People said that she died standing.

This terrible event hastened my deterioration into a “problem child.”

I quit trusting anything that anyone told me. Aside from the food that I put into my mouth, there was nothing I believed in. I had lost faith in everything. I was only sixteen, but my life was over. F—ing over.

Strange days overtook me, and I grew idle. I let myself go, feeling that I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. Indolence made my voice increasingly gravelly. I started to explore my body, either in front of the mirror or at my desk. I had no desire to understand it—I only wanted to experience it.

Facing the mirror and looking at myself, I saw my own desire in all its unfamiliarity. When I secretly pressed my sex up against the cold corner of my desk, I sometimes felt a pleasurable spasm. Just as it had been the first time, my early experiences of this “joy” were often beyond my control.

This was the beginning of my wasted youth. After that winter, Lingzi’s lilting laughter would constantly trail behind me, pursuing me as I fled headlong into a boundless darkness.

Rock and Roll Romance

That bar was painfully tacky and blazing with yellow lights that shone brightly on every sleazy detail. Sitting at the bar, I was as blank and luminous as the full moon. It was the first time I’d ever sat at a bar, and I felt a little nervous. Every now and then I’d turn and glance this way or that, making it look as if I were waiting for someone. I didn’t even know that I was in a bar. I had only just arrived in this small city in the South. It was 1989, and in Shanghai, where I’d come from, there still weren’t any bars, just a handful of small, unofficial street-side cafés. Maybe those tiny restaurants had bars, but I’d never set foot inside one.

Outside, it was raining hard, but I don’t remember what music was playing in the bar. And I don’t remember when I first caught sight of him, a tall boy swaying back and forth and smiling at nothing in particular. He was wearing an oversize white T-shirt and printed corduroy pants. The pants were wide enough to be a skirt, but they really were pants. He was there in the bar, all alone, rocking from side to side, with a whiskey glass in his left hand and his right hand dancing in the air. I watched his legs as, step by step, he moved toward me. His light blue sneakers had very thin soles, and it looked as if he was tripping over his own feet. His hair was long and straight and glossy, the tips brushing his upper back, and his face was very pale. I couldn’t make out his features, but I was certain that he was smiling, even if I couldn’t tell whether or not he was looking at me too.

I ate my ice cream. Before long, I became aware that a man’s hand holding a drink had appeared at my right side. It was a large hand with sturdy fingertips, and I knew at a glance that he chewed his nails. This was something we had in common.

A curtain of hair filled my field of vision, and I smelled the faint, delicate scent of his hair. I looked up.

And saw the face of an angel.

He smiled strangely, and the naked innocence in his eyes filled me with confusion. For the rest of the evening I wasn’t able to look away from that face, the face he wore then. And maybe it’s my belief in that face that has kept me alive until now, because I believe in that face. It’s my destiny.

He started chattering on and on about different kinds of ice cream. He said he also liked chocolate, and that his mother had told him that ill-fated children liked to eat sweets. He had a foreboding that because he liked sweets, he was going to be fat at thirty and bald at forty.

He asked me what I was doing in this town, and I said, Isn’t everyone here to make money? I didn’t graduate from high school, so I couldn’t find a job in Shanghai. What else was left except to come here? He said, But you’re so young; aren’t your parents worried about you? My dad’s pretty unusual, I said. He treats me like an adult. He wants to change his life and make a pile of money himself, so he encouraged me when I said I wanted to go off and earn some money. He asked me, Do you like money? I said, One time my dad helped a relative from overseas change some money on the black market. He thought that he could make a little commission for himself that way, but instead somebody snatched the cash from him, and he tried to chase the person down, but he couldn’t catch him, and he ended up with a sprained foot. My dad told me never ever to tell anyone about this, because he’d slipped out during working hours to change the money, and that wouldn’t look good to people. It makes me sad, what happened to him. I don’t know whether I really like money or not. My dad’s an intellectual; he’s weak. I’ll have to start now if I’m going to make any kind of money.

I had the feeling that this guy, who called himself Saining, was kind of interested in me. His clothing made him stand out, and each of the colors in his rainbow-hued pants made me feel happy. From his rambling monologue I learned that he played guitar, that playing guitar was all he wanted to do, and that he was looking for one or maybe a whole bunch of bars with stages.

Awestruck, I asked, Where in China are there places like that?

He said he didn’t know yet, but he was definitely going to find out.

These words emboldened me—to me a bar with a stage represented the road to freedom. I looked at him, adoring his black eyes, innocent, heartbreakingly innocent eyes, large and liquid. Hey, I said, you know what? I’m a singer, and I’m not bad!

And he answered, Do you want to come over to my place?

This was the first time a man had propositioned me, and heaven knows why I agreed on the spot. My expectations were vague and poetic, and dark undercurrents overtook my fantasy.

He said, I like girls from broken homes who are crazy about chocolate and who love the rain. I’ve been waiting for a girl like that for a long time.

I said, My God! A chocoholic who loves rainy days—that’s me!

Escape to the Open City

In December of 1994 I found myself caught in the middle of a gang war. I’ll never know for sure what started all that bloody fighting, and there’s nothing I can say about it except that someone shaved off all of my hair before giving me a sharp kick in the face. Those are some pretty eyes you’ve got, little girl, he said.

It was a horrible night. My eyes had been injured, and when I went to pay the nurse, she told me that all of my money was counterfeit. When I finally made it to the operating table, the anesthetic had no effect on me because of my tolerance, and I had to suffer through the entire operation anyway. After leaving the operating room, I wasn’t allowed to leave until someone came with real money. While I was sitting and waiting, a drug dealer from the Northeast called Blackie came limping in. He’d been stabbed, and I took him to the operating room. I’d been needing a fix for a while already, but Blackie had no heroin and no money, since he’d just been mugged. Blackie and I ended up sitting there together, waiting for someone to bring us some money, but the people who’d promised to bring the money took forever to show up. I was wheezing because I needed a fix, and I was fretting about not being able to leave the hospital until after daybreak. I was going to have to go outside with my messily shaved head. I was worrying about lots of other things too, and so I sat there, crossing and uncrossing my legs, not knowing what to do with myself.

That night, I had a sudden realization of this very simple truth: heroin was a drug that brought nothing but bad luck. It was true for anybody; all you had to do was cross paths with heroin, and sooner or later you would find yourself up to your neck in bad luck, with no way out. In this respect, heroin was no fun at all.

My father came to town. Once again he sent me to a rehab clinic in Shanghai. It seemed that this gang war had been a stroke of good luck after all, because otherwise I’m sure I would have died in the South. It must have been fate.

Before I went back to Shanghai, Sanmao and his old lady gave me a whole load of hats, hats of all shapes and sizes, and Sanmao told me that he was going to go back into rehab himself. He said, I have a feeling that you’re going to get better, that we’re both going to get better. Y’know, you look great in hats!

Completely bald, with a gauze patch over one eye, and lugging seven big suitcases, I arrived at the airport with my father. I had hidden some heroin in my underwear because I knew the craving could hit me at any time. This was something my father didn’t understand at all.

As we went through airport security, I kept looking at my father anxiously and thinking, He’s such a good person, and I’m so bad.

The moment the plane left the ground, I f—ing burst into tears. I swore I would never come back to this town in the South ever again. This weird, plastic, bull—- Special Economic Zone, with all that pain and sadness, and the face of love, and the whole totally f—ed-up world of heroin, and the late-1980s gold rush mentality, and all that pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong. This place had all of the best and all of the worst. It had become my eternal nightmare.

About Mian Mian

One of the most important writers from China’s new generation, Mian Mian has lived up to her reputation as China’s best bad girl novelist. She drew wide attention from the literati starting at the age of 17 when she became the first Chinese writer to ever describe a drug related life. Her characteristic flavor of “cruel youth” and her serious attitude towards self-reflection quickly attracted a large following of young readers. Her novels have been translated into 15 different languages and published worldwide. Candy, Mian Mian’s magnum opus, an underground best seller, is regarded as the most remarkable adolescent literature in China. In April 2000, the government officially banned her book and subsequently the rest of her books. However by this time, hundreds of thousands of pirated copies had already been circulated. Mian Mian’s literature had exerted tremendous influence on the Chinese X and Y generations. She has become a cultural icon for a generation of Chinese youth who value the authenticity and honesty of her portrayal of the future of the new Shanghai. In 2009 she published her new novel, Panda Sex, in China and France, soon to be published in English.
Click here to visit Mian Mian’s website