Category Archives: Shirley

One Poem, Two Translations and One and a Half Poets

Chen Ko Hua is a poet, essayist, and ophthalmologist with a degree from Taipei Medical University and Harvard Medical School. He has written more than twenty books of poetry in Mandarin, and this fall he was a resident writer with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Every year, the program invites about 35 writers to live in Iowa City for a few months and attend readings, panels, classes, with the chance to interact with writers from around the globe. This year’s group included a surrealist fiction writer from Bulgaria, a flash fiction writer from the Philippines, a spoken-word poet from Botswana…

After my International Literature Today class, in which he presented his work, I asked him if he might provide some insight on my project. He followed up by sending me an entire signed book of his poetry, along with tens of essays and poetry he had written about the environment, climate change, weather patterns, etc.

My parents and I sat down, going line-by-line through each stanza and together we translated this poem. I brought the newly birthed “Call to El Nino” to him, then I sat down to see what he thought.

El Nino refers to a weather phenomenon where abnormally high or low sea temperatures and ocean current changes create unstable rain patterns in the east Pacific region, causing extreme rainfall or droughts at times.

“I wrote this poem maybe last year,” Chen said, “Maybe I’m paranoid, but also I’m a Buddhist. In the Buddhist manuscript, they also describe the end of the human world that’s pretty similar. It’s called “huo” which is a fire, “huo da” means the fire will be destroy everything. So that’s pretty similar with the temperatures getting higher and higher. And as a poet we can imagine that it’s a warming of nature, or telling people that we really have changed too many things, we twist or we are just too greedy so we change nature. Nature will change us and change the world. Sometimes I will worry about this.”

I would not call myself a poet, perhaps just a partial poet. But the value of any actual person as a translator is especially noteworthy when you compare their work to the results from a “Google Translator.”

Google chugged:

We already call the baby

The baby ‘s ghost has arrived. Rainstorm

The morning sunset

We live in high places

You can see a brilliant purple gold edge of the evil cloud

UFO-like passing

My Translation: As you read through the rest, pay close attention to the line rhythm, the word choice, and the punctuation/word capitalization in the poem.

Call to El Niño

We beckon to El Niño.

Its spirit has already arrived

with the morning sunset’s downpour.

We live safely, high above the ground

watching the brilliant purple golden clouds

its ominous edges

soaring across the sky

like a UFO.

By the window, a pot of withering plant —



within the skyscraper made

of steel and iron bones,


flu-proof masks

the humans are locked inside doors,


by air-conditioners.

Though it wants to travel, it wants to visit from thousands of miles away

together, we keep El Nino outside —

We wait for the sun to once again kiss the earth,

when the breeze is soft and sunshine is tender.

We poke our heads out

only to discover El Niño

at every door

has left a perfumed


























Shirley’s Climate Narrative Project: Written Literature and Voices of Sustainability in China


Theme:  Politicized China-U.S. climate relations, translation as an empowering process, a probing into environmental justice movements that are happening in Chinese.

General storyline:

  1. INTRO- sustainability as a holistic conversation, notions of translation, varied philosophies II. ESSAY – Personal narrative III. SCRIPT – Call to action IV. POEM – relations

Interviews/Research: Zhou Jianing, Chen Ko Hua (writers), my parents, UI professor Wenfang Teng, Chinese environmental activist, translators  

Arts Medium: overlaid videos of bodies of water flowing in opposite directions, of China and of Iowa, in between readings of translated literature, and soft voices reading in Chinese

Read more about my project here. 

“I Am Not An Animal”: Vegetarianism in Lit

“You can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand. Our anterior teeth are not suited for tearing flesh or hide. We don’t have large canine teeth, and we wouldn’t have been able to deal with food sources that require those large canines.” -Biological Anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey

Have you ever heard this argument against meat-eating? Though many physiologists have shown that humans have since evolved to consume and digest meat, PETA argues that because we don’t “daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw,” humans are instinctively and biologically herbivores.

While the premise is false (just kidding, haha), this idea is compelling in that it suggests a dichotomy in which meat-eaters, everyday, partake in something unnatural, and vegetarians or vegans are more connected with their natural selves. Interesting, but cynical.

This can be a moralizing tool of environmentalists, protesting against a livestock industry (and duly so) that is responsible globally for 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases , but this posits meat-eaters are people who are “wrong,” engaged in illicit activity. As we all share the blame for the harm we’ve done to our planet and we could all do more to consciously reevaluate what we chose to put in our bodies and its environmental impact, but I can’t help but feel annoyed by the righteousness of such a simple binary.  

Two stories I read recently, Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Pending Vegan” and South Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, represent vegetarianism as the initial crack through socialized behavior, the beginning of a return into their natural beings. While I don’t agree with this conclusion, when posed as an allegorical question, whether or not meat-eating is natural/unnatural creates some really great psychological, behavioral-analysis. 

In “Pending Vegan,” Lethem’s character Paul Espeseth takes his family to Sea-World. He already really doesn’t want to be there, but his situation is even worse because he’s on an antidepressant that, according to his therapist, creates a sense of “a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edges of the everyday world… ‘grub-in-meat syndrome.’”

He’s heard of the documentary exposes of these orca hells (even though he’s never watched one), he’s sympathetic towards the terrified animals being lurked by eager children, he’s read the “several famous polemics against the cruelty of farms and slaughterhouses.” But most of all, Espeseth’s  uncomfortable with the way that he feeds his kids meat, promotes animal incarceration, while asking his kids to respect and care for them as a living species. This contradiction is why he’s named himself, secretly, the Pending Vegan, he is waiting to arrive as what he thinks he ought to be.

“Civilizing children was pretty much about inducing cognitive dissonance. His daughter’s balancing of their desire both to cuddle and to devour mammals was their ticket for entry to the human pageant. If Pending Vegan admitted to them that he now believed it wrong to eat animals – even while he still craved that tang of smoky steaks and salt-greasy bacon – he’d lower himself, in their eyes, to a state of childlike moral absolutism.”

The irony that this ethical ordeal occurs at Sea World is not lost to him. As his family sits down to eat and is served mystery meat drumsticks, he thinks

“See food, eat food.

Sea World. Eat World.”

Is everyone else like him, just not self-aware enough to see that they too live in contradiction? Is this a result of “civilizing”?

The first line of Kang’s “The Vegetarian” is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” It has much darker of a theme than Lethem’s short story. Though the husband’s sentiment is anything but pride – he describes his wife Yeong-hye’s downward spiral into complete neurosis: her vegetarianism in a household that holds bulgogi as a sustenance, accompanied by a physique like the “skeletal frame of an invalid.”

Because the story is narrated by the husband, we hear his oblivious justifications of various abuse towards Yeong-hye. Her family vehemently rejects her dietary choice, and all try to reassert their control over her. Her parents and sister invite her over for interventions, they eventually begin to physically abuse her, and try to trick her into consuming animal flesh.

Yeong-hye, a typically average and acquiescent woman, obsessively denies any attempts to change her mind. In some ways, Kang suggests, the choice is not up to her. She has begun to have vividly cruel dreams:

“Trees thick with leaves, springtime’s green light. Families picnicking, little children running about, and that small, that delicious smell. Almost painfully vivid. The babbling stream, people spreading out rush mats to sit on, sucking on kimbap. Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter. But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anyone see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.”

Vegetarianism, as a part of Yeong-hye’s life, is only a simple decision, but in many ways it is signaling her coming into her independence. Though she is disturbed and begins to live her daily life in very hollow ways, she says “I’m not an animal anymore,” as she renounces and rejects any standard set by convention, or upbringing. Though Lethem’s character, Paul Espeseth, would most likely tell her, that there is no such thing as complete detoxification. And Han Kang may agree, as Yeong-hye slowly deteriorates throughout her story. 

What Does The Future Hold?

desert-china-map This article, Living in China’s Expanding Desert illustrates in an interactive way how climate change is affecting not just those who live in coastal areas, but also those inland. It may be hard to understand why warming and increased water content in the atmosphere would cause desertification, but it is quite simple if you think about it. When water is heated, it evaporates and lifts up into the atmosphere where it condenses and falls again. However, in a desert or arid region, any moisture that lifts up, does not fall down in the same place. This is a natural process that is the result of wind cells on the planet stemming from equatorial heating. Unfortunately, the earth is heating more rapidly and water is spread further and further from areas that need it, like Chinese deserts or the Sahal in Africa. The input of energy into any system will cause a reaction and the more energy, the higher the magnitude of such a reaction.

This is yet another example of people who do not cause the majority of climate changes being affected the most by climate change. Rural people all over the world are being impacted and not with just hot days, they are losing their way of life and resources to food. This is a positive feedback loop that will accelerate with time and there is probably no going back from something like this. There is development of solar panels that are de-desertifying some places in Africa, but the problem of government intervention is just as bad or worse in China. This is a human rights issue that must be looked at as such; for, we all have the right to life, liberty and happiness… not just Americans.