Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2011

The English Class by Ouyang Yu

English ClassThe English Class is an unusual book, quite unlike anything I’ve read before.  Ouyang Yu was born and educated in China before coming to Australia in 1991; since then he has 52 books of poetry, fiction non-fiction, translation and literary criticism published.  I discovered this novel because it has been shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

It’s the story of Jing, a truck driver, who yearns to learn English.  Denied an education because of the Cultural Revolution, Jing teaches himself 100 words a day and swots from a text in his spare time in hope of gaining a place in the universities as they reopen.  Considered lucky by his bemused workmates because at least his driving job gets him out and about rather than stuck in a mind-numbing factory, Jing is not quite sure why or how English will be of use to him; he just wants to live a life of the mind, to ‘do something like thought driving, moving thoughts from one place to another in a world that seems to lack them.’ (p115)

BEWARE: SPOILERS

But when Jing gets to university, he begins to have doubts about the merits of English.  He feels that he should master Chinese first before learning another language and while he reads voraciously in both languages, he gets caught reading a Chinese book in class.   In a society where it’s still important to be politically correct and to conform, he’s a loner and an isolate, and there are portents of his ultimate disintegration when he comes to Australia with the wife of his English professor.  Jing can’t cope with the duality of bilingualism: he feels that it is a betrayal of China to ‘become’ English.

The dominance of English means that any writing by NESB (Non English Speaking Background) authors will inevitably be seen as second-rate, not in the same class as ‘authentic’ English.  Neither Dr Wagner, his professor not his wife feel any compulsion to learn a word of Chinese because of the ‘superiority’ and pervasiveness of English.

It’s part of Jing’s personality to avoid conformity but there are rules for writing in English that he has to obey.  His identity fractures under the strain: he is given different names (E-Jing/Gene); he doubts his parenthood; he storms out of classes in China and from social occasions in Australia in a muddle of cultural and linguistic confusion.

This is classy writing, in the same league as Brian Castro and David Foster.   It plays with the dissonance between the two languages and the implications for bilinguals.  While Ou admits to autobiographical elements in the work, he has fictionalised his life perhaps for the same reason as the fictionalised central character in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) by George Gissing.  Jing often refers to Gissing’s work and reads it almost obsessively; the narrator of The Private Papers who is tidying up his dead friend’s estate wonders why the hack writer had never written the novel he wanted to, and thinks it might be because ‘Ryecroft’ could not decide on the form.

I imagine him shrinking from the thought of a first-person volume; he would feel it too pretentious; he would bid himself wait for the day of riper wisdom. (The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft by George Gissing, Preface. Kindle edition.)

The form that Ouyang has used for The English Class is postmodern, with authorial commentary intruding into the narrative to keep reminding the reader that the novel is a constructed art form.   His misgivings are many and varied: he says it’s hard to write the novel because although some things really happened to him, he can’t remember all the details and has to make them up. He talks about failed attempts with one form or another, and how even the haphazard choice of names doesn’t satisfy him.  He wants the novel to be authentic but ‘imagination without the reality is like clouds, constantly changing without a fixed shape’ (p41).  I found these intrusions very thought-provoking but they do break up the text and prevent the reader from following the story of Jing without interruption.   There are also some rather gross descriptions of Jing’s sexual practices, which contribute nothing to the story.

There’s a really good review at Mascara and Maria Zijlstra interviewed the author for the Radio National Book Show. There are excerpts from other reviews on the Transit Lounge website.

English ClassAuthor: Ouyang Yu
Title: The English Class
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2010
ISBN: 9780980571783
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings at the State Library, $32.95 AUD

As I wrote when I posted a Sensational Snippet from this book, this book seems to have sold out almost everywhere.  (Transit Lounge is a small independent publisher so perhaps the initial print run was small?)     Readings at the State Library may still have copies (they had some at the time of posting this). Failing that, try the link to Fishpond above, and leave your email address to be notified when stocks come in.   Oh, and the publisher’s website says that an eBook will be available soon.

Update 27 April 2011

Ouyang Yu’s agent has contacted me to advise that there are stocks of The English Class available.  Please scroll down to the comments below and follow Sandy’s advice about how to get a copy.


Responses

  1. I love books about language, and this one sounds like a unique take on the topic from someone who should know what they’re talking about. The post modern form is one you either like or dislike I suppose. I recently praised a book which had many authorial interjections, not because of its novelty but because it was so well done, so its not a problem to me in itself. Another great review so thanks for sharing

    • I really like it when a book shifts my way of thinking about something. I’ve learned a few languages, mainly for travel purposes, but I had never really thought about the transformation that takes place and the assault on one’s identity when one ‘takes on’ a new language in an irrevocable way. I think this book has enriched my understanding of acculturation – and, BTW, even though a good part of the action takes place in China, I’d consider it eligible for the 2012 Miles Franklin because the character becomes an Australian and this is the story of his linguistic journey to get here. This is ‘Australian life in [one of] its phases’ as lived by an Australian born elsewhere, as 25% of us are.

      • Hi Lisa,
        I’m Ouyang’s Lit Agent and have been meaning to say that The English Class is not out of stock with the publisher Transit Lounge if a bookshop doesn’t have it.
        If a copy is needed best therefore to reorder from the bookshop. Also, it’s a good way for the bookseller to be made familiar with the book if s/he isn’t already. Also, bookshops that you may experienced may have had some confusion over status of stock because this year the distribution for Transit Lounge has moved from Denis Jones to University of NSW.
        Thank you for being such a fan. Everything you have said rings true for me, too.
        All best,
        Sandy Wagner

        • Hello Sandy, thanks for clarifying this. I should have made it clearer that I had only searched online, not in actual bookshops (which of course I haven’t needed to do because I already have my own copy).
          I’ll add an update to the bottom of my post telling them to follow your advice.
          Good luck for the NSW awards!
          Lisa

  2. […] The English Class by Chinese-Australian author Ouyang Yu – this book is about migration, assimilation and the power of language to shape cultural and social identities.  Thanks to Lisa of ANZ Litlovers LitBlog for her brilliant review. […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: