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Stick Out Your Tongue: Stories by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew [in Bloomsbury Review]

Stick Out Your TongueFor the average American, Tibet is not so much a troubled faraway land, but an ethereal concept marked by the kind face of the Dalai Lama, often in the company of devotee Richard Gere.

“In the West, I have met many people who share the same romantic vision of Tibet that I held before I visited the country,” writes Ma Jian in the revealing afterword of his slim short-story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue. “The need to believe in an earthly paradise, a hidden utopia where men live in peace and harmony, seems to run deep among those who are discontented with the modern world.”

Given its history of Chinese domination, the Tibet Ma exposes in this mesmerizing five-story collection is filled with images of loss, violence, and death so disturbingly vivid as to make a reader almost thankful for the book’s brevity – which is not to say that this is a book to be avoided.

On the contrary, Stick Out Your Tongue is a rare glimpse into a mostly unfamiliar part of the world. It’s also a welcome addition to a slowly growing number of titles from and about Tibet available in English. Recent titles from major publishers include Red Poppies (2002) by Tibetan Alai, an epic novel about a once powerful Tibetan clan whose future survival amidst imminent Communist Chinese takeover depends on Second Young Master – a village idiot to some and a prescient sage to others, and Sky Burial (2004) by Chinese writer Xinran, about a young Chinese doctor who spends 30 years searching throughout Tibet for her missing husband.

Indeed, Ma’s own memoir, Red Dust: A Path Through China (2001), which details his three-year picaresque odyssey in search of personal enlightenment, concludes with a trek through Tibet in 1985. Stick Out Your Tongue could be viewed as the memoir’s companion piece in which Ma both repeats and enhances the fragments he introduces in Red Dust.While both titles stand alone as individual texts, to read them together is to get a much fuller understanding of Ma’s journey. With Ma’s only other title available in English, The Noodle Maker (2005), a satirical novel made up of interlocking stories within a story, the three make up a powerful oeuvre.

Stick Out Your Tongue opens with “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” in which Ma meets a Chinese soldier living in an army repair station near Yamdrok Lake in Central Tibet. Red Dust readers will recognize the events – but in story form, the tragedy of Myima, the soldier’s lost love, is utterly wrenching. Sold as a sickly child at age 6, raped by her adoptive father, and eventually wedded to two brothers as their shared wife, Myima dies at 17 in childbirth. Ma is allowed to witness her “sky burial,” a Tibetan funeral ritual in which the corpse is offered to sacred vultures.

In “The Smile of Lake Dromula,” a young man from the remote grasslands searches for his nomadic family from whom he has been separated while studying in the town of Saga. With reunion comes the sad realization of the wide gulf between his isolated roots and the student life with which he has become more comfortable.

“The Eight-Fanged Roach” is the collection’s most unsettling story. Ma recounts meeting an old man in search of redemption from the self-created horror of his pathetic life: he slept with his widowed mother at 16, fathered his own sister, only to rape that daughter in drunken violence.

Illicit relationships also populate “The Golden Crown,” in which Ma hears the allegedly 400-year-old story of a promising apprentice’s affair with his older master’s beautiful young wife whose greed leads to destruction.

The last story, “The Final Initiation,” introduces a female lama who is acknowledged as the current incarnation of the Living Buddha. Although she physically survives a brutal ritual rape, her psyche cannot recover and her body fails to endure “the final initiation” of standing in a river of ice for three days.

Published originally in China in 1987, Ma’s collection was almost instantly banned by the Chinese government as a “‘vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.’” In actuality, Ma bears witness to the effects of Chinese brutalization: “Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.” He leaves Tibet demoralized. “In this sacred land, it seemed that the Buddha couldn’t even save himself, so how could I expect him to save me? … I felt empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue and begs his doctor to diagnose what’s wrong with him.”

Because Ma cannot dislodge these human ills and injustices from his memory, he has no recourse but to write them down. “People there [in Tibet] endure sufferings that are beyond the comprehension of the modern world,” he insists in “The Final Initiation.” “I am writing down this story now in the hope that I can start to forget.” Instead, Ma’s raw, all-baring prose makes forgetting impossible.

Review: The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2006

TBR‘s Contributing Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2006: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things … in Print, That Is …,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2006

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006 (United States)


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