November 10th, 2002

To Discuss: David Bowie's "China Girl" as Example of Orientalism

I could escape this feeling with my China Girl
I feel a wreck without my little China Girl
I hear her heart beating loud as thunder
Saw they stars crashing
I'm a mess without my little China Girl
Wake up mornings where's my little China Girl
I hear her heart's beating loud as thunder
Saw they stars crashing down
I feel a-tragic like I'm Marlon Brando
When I look at my China Girl
I could pretend that nothing really meant too much
When I look at my China Girl
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It's in the whites of my eyes
My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you men who want to rule the world
And when I get excited
My little China Girl says
Oh baby just you shut your mouth
She says ... sh-sh-shhh
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A Quote, for Discussion

"I asked a recent house guest--a novelist [Valerie Martin]--for her opinion. Was it possible, I said, to write a story with no moral implications at all? "No," she said. "You can't help the moral implication, because a story has to come out one way or the other, and the rear will have opinions about the rightness or wrongness of the outcome, whether you like it or not. She recalled various authors who had tried to do away with this element: GIde in Lafcadio, Robbe-Grillet, who declared that he was out to dispose of two obsolete concepts, character and plot. I do remember reading the latter in the late fifties--it was sort of like reading a cafeteria tray before you've put anything on it. That having been said, I'd also say that Robbe-Grillet came pretty close to writing morally neutral prose. But this prose was also neutral in most other ways--ways that make much writing of interest. "His essays are a scream," said my friend. "Yes, but do you still read his novels?" I said. "No," she said. "Nothing happens, and there aren't any jokes."

- from Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2002. p. 110.

On the Exotic

The last paragraph of the notes on the back of Negotiating with the Dead reads as follows:

"Margaret Atwood has been acclaimed for her talent for portraying both personal lives and problems of universal concern. Her work has been published in more than thirty-five languages, including Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic, and Estonian."

The first half of the paragraph describes Atwood's wok as being of universal interest. The second half of the paragraph describes some of the languages--presumably the relatively exotic languages, the unexpected languages--into which her work has been translated. Yet, if her works are so universally of interest, why shouldn't they be translated into these languages? Japan's is the largest national economy after the United States' and China, South Korea should rightly take Canada's place in the G-8 (or more properly Russia's), Iceland and Finland are two of the most developed countries in the world, Estonia is one of the quickest developing, and Turkey is definitely not a society to be underrated. Altogether, I think that some 250 million people speak the national languages of these six nations as first languages. Compare this to the 90 millions who speak German as a first language, the 160-170 million who speak Russian, et cetera.

Another note: Five of these languages likely bear some distant mutual relationship. Estonian and Finnish, for instance, are two languages no more different from each other than French and Italian, say, or English and Dutch, while these two Finnic languages are distantly related to Turkish. Turkish, in turn, may bear some distant relationship to Korean and Japanese. Korean and Japanese are likely distant relatives, inasmuch as they share basic elements of syntax though their vocabularies are quite different; the latest historical/linguistic theory seems to hold that the Japanese islands were settled by migrants from Korea whose proto-Korean language was eventually overwhelmed by the proto-Korean language variant that eventually developed into Korean. Icelandic, a well-documented Germanic language, is unrelated, but it comes from the same Nordic cultural complex as Finnish and Estonian; indeed, like those two languages, it comes from the peripheries of Norden.
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