Not what I wished for
Once upon a time, a raven-haired maiden bid her parents farewell and journeyed to the faraway kingdom of [x]. [Description]
Along the way, she came across a [witch / wishing well / wolf / talking animal] who [foreshadows / gives clue or advice about adulthood – but we don’t know this yet]. [Protagonist’s reaction]
Finds new home. Morning routine. Carriage across glittering moat. Silver castle on hill. Modern. Angles. Flag mast.
From the town square, the maiden hurries to one of several glass towers and runs up the spiral staircase, counting each turn. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Day in, day out.
Spins thread, raw material for the King’s Court to make use of in silver castle. Judged on quality, accuracy, timeliness.
She thinks back three years ago to when she started as an apprentice. The thread she wove then was coarse; her stitches tripped / scarred the fabric.
Passing of time. Summer. Autumn: trees ablaze in gold, crimson. Winter: crisp as a granny smith, puckery. Spring.
I closed my laptop when the waft of bamboo leaves reached me: dinner was ready. I fished a fist-sized zongzi from the pot and peeled away its green-brown envelope. The tetrahedron of glutinous rice hid a centre of yellow mung beans studded with Chinese five-spice pork belly and shiitake mushroom. It split beneath my chopsticks and I nibbled absentmindedly.
What does my protagonist dream of? How do I create tension or conflict? Should I mention Prince Charming? Could I use a magic mirror for social media?
The heart of the zongzi was cold, again: I had heated it straight from the freezer. Mum would have got it right the first time. She had wrapped extra for me to take back to Canberra. I picture her on a green plastic stool, curling the ends of the leaves to form a cone, shiny side up. A tablespoon of rice, then filling (never black-eyed beans, she knows I detest them), and more rice. Press down, fold over and tie tightly with string. I used to help her, sometimes, but not since I left home.
‘Midge says she loves her job.’
‘She’s lying,’ said Mum.
‘She used to hate her job but she got a new one and now she loves it. I don’t think she’s lying.’
‘Quit your job, come home. You can work at the library while studying part-time.’
I said nothing.
‘It’d be temporary,’ she continued. ‘Just for a year or two.’
‘Mum, no. I can’t live at home anymore.’
‘Wait!’ I ran for the lift, ‘Level 9, thanks.’
At my desk. Wink. Wink. Wink. The cursor taunted me.
I turned away from the screen. I hate my job. I hate my job. I hate my job ... I scribbled, over and over, filling the page in prim, red ink. If I wrote it enough times, maybe something would happen. I tore away the page, folded it into quarters and slipped it into my bag.
Wink. Wink. Wink. The cursor, still. I stared at it.
The letters and emails kept coming from across the nation. It was my job to reply, to be helpful.
Wispy, raw strands of thoughts refused to become thread. No words, no energy to even copy and paste. I’d never felt so empty. The words meant nothing. Technically accurate yet meaningless. It felt wrong; I loved words. To line up words on a page without actually saying anything was a skill, but did I want to spin my life away?
I looked out the window, across the lake to the flag fluttering above Capital Hill. The size of a double-decker bus, the guide had said. Four graceful shards of modern stainless steel marking the ‘centre of the nation’ – how much I’d wanted to work there, once upon a time.
Then, tears. A warm trickle down my cheeks. I tried to focus as Pete said something about the media release due tomorrow. ‘Keep it high-level and flat.’ I avoided his eyes and, as soon as he went back into his office, dashed to the bathroom.
I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.
Stupid sticker. Even though I knew it would be there, unavoidable at eye-level, I always used that cubicle, third from left. I silent-cried but, by the third day, didn’t care if anyone heard.
‘You’re the toilet-crier. Trudy came in the other day asking if I knew who it was.’
‘Why would she ask you? How did she know the toilet-crier would come to you?’
‘I’d like a refund please.’
‘Well, you see, I ordered Writer but this isn’t what I received.’
‘Please wait while I check your order. Name?’
The shopgirl tapped away at her computer and clicked through several screens. ‘Our system says you received the delivery.’
‘Yes, I know. I signed for it but that’s not what I got.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Your order was delivered.’
‘Can I speak to your manager?’
I glanced around the store as she flittered to the backroom. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling. I ran my eyes across D. Dancer. Dentist. Detective. Dictator. Digital Influencer. Director. Diva. Doctor.
‘Hello, my name is Margaret. How can I help you today?’
‘I think there’s been a mix-up. I ordered Writer but that’s not what I received.’
‘You write, no?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t call answering the King’s mail “writing”. It’s not the writing I want to do.’
‘You ordered Writer and we’ve provided that. Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’
I wanted to punch her pretty, impassive face.
Once upon a time, a raven-haired maiden bid her parents farewell and journeyed to the far, faraway kingdom of Cambria. The little kingdom lay in a cold valley, encircled by gentle, evergreen hills.
She made a home by the lake and found work spinning thread for the King’s Court in the silver castle high on the hill. Her work kept her warm and well-fed yet she dreamed of something more.
One evening, while walking in the woods near her home, she came across a fox caught in a trap. She backed away in horror but its soft, brown eyes pierced her with such pity that she quickly set it free.
In return for her kindness, the fox bade her well with a few words of advice.
‘Sometimes, you need to leave home to find it,’ he said.
Author’s and translator’s notes
Despite my Chinese heritage, I have very limited language skills. I spoke only Cantonese before primary school and studied Mandarin until the end of high school. Cantonese was my first language as a child but English is the language I dream, think and express myself in. As a writer who spends hours agonising over the right word, I can’t help but become a less precise, less nuanced version of myself in Chinese.
When I communicate in Chinese, I try to make myself understood with limited vocabulary, punctuated with mistakes. For this reason, I was inspired to ask my friend, Ginger Yeh, to translate into Taiwanese Mandarin some fairy tales I had written as a child and had recently come across. Put simply, I wanted to convey my childish dreams in a language that, when I use it, makes me feel like a child. The fairy tales needed a backstory; on their own, it was not clear who had written them and why. I decided to tell the story of an office worker attempting to escape reality through a fairy tale analogous to her life. Rather than capturing the magic of her childhood, however, she creates a twisted version of reality that both traps and frees her. Writers are constantly translating life into art.
The process of growing up can be brutal, severing us from our past and making who we once were as incomprehensible as a foreign language. The translated fairy tales represent how far we journey from our childhood selves and act as a bridge to my Chinese heritage, adding yet another layer of stories for bilingual readers.
It was interesting to read stories by a seven-year-old girl, especially when she is one of my closest friends. Reading these stories made me feel a little closer to Shu-Ling and her love for literature, which started at a very young age.
Translating these stories made me think about what I was like when I was seven. What language and tone did I use? The most challenging part was not translating the words of the stories, but was interpreting the meaning and the context. I had to pick Shu-Ling’s brain about what she had wanted to say.
I’ve chosen to stick to the voice of a child, instead of creating stories with perfect grammar and tenses. I wanted to stay as close as possible to Shu-Ling’s story and carry across the voice of the young author.
One example of vocabulary choices that prompted a long discussion with Shu-Ling were the words ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’. In ‘The Pretty Goldfish’, one of the fish likes being ugly or likes ugly things but is told to stop being bad. The association between ugly and bad was teased out when we had the discussion. We worked out that in many children’s stories, villains are both ugly and bad. Perhaps, to a child, ‘ugly’ and ‘bad’ are therefore the same thing.
I am bilingual in Traditional Chinese (Mandarin) and English. There is an ongoing debate about whether Traditional Chinese should be abolished because it is only used as an official script in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I am very fond of Traditional Chinese characters because when you read them, you can see their history. You can understand how they evolved through time. Each character has a radical that tells you the base of the character. For example, in my last name 葉 (Yeh), the top crosses mean ‘plants’ and my last name means ‘tree leaf’. When you see it as Simplified Chinese 叶(Yeh), you see a 口(mouth) and a 十(ten). Although easier to write, the identity and history is lost for the character, hence my decision to use Traditional Chinese here.