Eva Sjödin was born 1956 in Östersund, Sweden, and currently lives in Stockholm. Inner China is her third book. She debuted in 1993 with the collection Systrarna med gult och svart hår (“The Sisters with Yellow and Black Hair”), followed by Kom tistel sträva längtan (“Come Thistle Rugged Longing”) in 1997.
Jennifer Hayashida grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm and San Francisco, and currently lives in Brooklyn. She received her MFA in writing from Bard College in 2003. She is the recipient of awards from, among others, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the New York Foundation for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Poetry Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. She is most recently the translator, from the Swedish, of Athena Farrokhzad's White Blight (Argos Books, 2015), and Karl Larsson's Form/Force (Black Square Editions, 2015). Previous work has appeared in The Literary Review, Insurance, and The Asian Pacific American Journal.
By turns catastrophic and luminous, Inner China, in Jennifer Hayashida’s translation, is unflinching in its gaze, economical in its language, and fearless as it enters the difficult terrain that is childhood. Here the interior and exterior worlds, the magical and the mundane collide—brutally and beautifully.
In Eva Sjödin’s Inner China, the imaginative life born of the desire for heaven, for somewhere else, is the starkest reminder that we reside not there, but here: on earth. While ‘heaven and dirt cave in, twist together,’ the young narrator makes a life and language of the fertile and porous nature beyond her cold realities, an emotional world marked by decay and resilience. This tale is then, also, a map of the human psyche as it maneuvers around that which threatens its body.
Here it smells stiff, and of mold, stiff
But if you open the books a fire shoots out, and strange sentences like: “In the törnebete1 of the desert where the ground is covered with salt and soda the camels find new strength.”
“far away in a corner of the world between two deserts, of which Gobi in the north is one fo the earth’s largest, while few, on the other hand, have heard of Ordos in the south,” I read in the book with the dingy cover deep among the shelves at Noea.2
I put the book under my shirt right away, press it against my stomach.
Everything fits, everything is about us, Edith and me, but in the book we have become two orphaned boys in inner china:
“They were named Tehseng and Laiseng, which means Receive Life and Come to Life.”
At home we play Tehseng and Laiseng. I put Tehseng in a box with some newspaper on the bottom and pull her on a cart to the orphanage.
Tehseng wails. — Quiet, I say. Remember that you have been saved! That you were thrown to the wolves outside the city walls but that I saved you. You are a little troll, a changeling. You should be happy.
I pull Tehseng to the orphanage.
She gets strong medicine because her mother was an opium-smoker, and she is in a deep sleep for three days.
When I wake her up she does not want to have anything to do with me.
The rocks, the fir trees, the black dirt see us play Tehseng and Laiseng.
Laiseng pulls Tehseng on the cart to the orphanage. Laiseng tips Tehseng out of the cart into the frozen blueberry bushes. Tehseng roars. Tehseng gets three dog biscuits and the blanket to sleep on.
The rocks, the fir trees, the black dirt listen, close.
Laiseng carries a dark wet bundle: Tehseng. Carries it into the house. Pulls off all the wet rags, wraps the blanket around. Laiseng kisses Tehseng. Stains appear.
Laiseng rocks Tehseng on the couch, between the cushions there are cookie crumbs, kernels of corn, comatose cockroaches.
If you try to wake them they become even harder even deader.
— What are you doing, Mother asks. — Playing.
They rush out to the Yellow River. To the dog blanket’s stench of dog hair, love.
— Give me love, damn it. Love
At night the others come into our yard. The woman with white-blond hair and a bathing suit. A deer. Two dirty children. They know about our orphanage: that it is open to all. The woman with white-blond hair sits leaning against the alder tree most of the time and reads a book. Marilyn is her name. The deer and the children dare to get close to her. The deer places its slender head in her lap, breathes.
1 Törnebete: Grazing ground for animals vegetated by thorny bushes.
2 Noea: Within the Swedish library classification system, the subject matter cataloguing code for texts dealing with the geography of China.