Neighborhood Stories

For my interview with Wang Zhanhei, one of China’s youngest writers, I arranged to meet her in Dinghaiqiao, a neighborhood on the outskirts of town.

From the subway, I had to pick my way through an open-air market, where stalls with an assortment of vegetables, baskets of fruits, and buckets of freshly caught carp—some still flopping about—lined the road. Two blocks later, I turned down an alleyway barely wide enough for a person, walked a few hundred more meters, and finally arrived at the place where we’d agreed to meet: Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society, a volunteer-run organization that offers assistance to migrants and manual laborers. It’s a place that Wang often visits.

When I arrived, she was already inside, engaged in a lively conversation with some of her friends.


我和王占黑的采访,相约在“定海桥”。

地铁下来,沿着一条马路菜场曲折地走,最先迎接我的是铺了满街的蔬菜、水果,和一条冷不丁从水盆里跳出来的鲫鱼。两个路口之后,再拐进一条一人窄的小路走几百米,就是“定海桥互助社”了。这是一个关注工人群体和移居人口的自发性组织,身为半个作家半个教师的王占黑,会不定时在这里出没。

再往里探一探头,王占黑已经在和好友坐着聊天了。

1 / Unsung Heroes

Displayed on a shelf directly inside the entrance are Wang’s two recent books, Jiedao Jianghu (“Neighborhood Adventurers”) and Kong Xiang Pao (“Air Cannon”), the latter of which just won the inaugural Blancpain-Imaginist Literature Prize. The cover jacket contains a short bio:

Born in 1991 in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, Wang Zhanhei graduated from Fudan University with a degree in literature. Her stories Neighborhood Heroes, which originally appeared on Douban, have been published in ONE, FurongShanhua, and the Sinan Literary Journal.

Succinct and straightforward, this statement of fact is the book’s only introduction to the author.

As it happens, since she graduated from Fudan University, Wang has been working as a high school instructor, teaching seniors in an international program. She only sees herself as a writer when she’s actually writing—the rest of the time she calls herself a working stiff. When we arranged to meet, she texted me that she happened to have the day off, but she followed this information with a frowning emoji: “Next week I have to work six days straight.”


1/发现英雄

在定海桥互助社进门处的一排小书柜上,摆着王占黑的新书《街道江湖》和《空响炮》,后者让她刚刚荣获首届宝珀·理想国文学奖。翻开简介看:

“王占黑,1991 年生于浙江嘉兴,毕业于复旦大学中文系。曾在豆瓣写了一系列‘街道英雄’的故事,已有作品散见于《ONE一个》《芙蓉》《山花》《思南文学选刊》等。”

简洁,平面,寥寥几句事实性的陈述,这是书上对她的全部介绍。

事实上,从复旦研究生毕业后,王占黑现在是一所高中的老师,教国际班的高三。作家这个身份,她自己觉得,只有在写作的时候是,其他时候,她也会用“社畜”来形容自己。相约采访前,恰巧赶上了调休,王占黑没忘记发一个“sad”的表情,“接下去又要连上六天班了。”

The interview officially began as we strolled among the clusters of low-rise apartment buildings in the neighborhood and chatted.

The neighborhood consists of typical working-class housing, and was reminiscent of the place Wang herself grew up in. Familiar sights and sounds filled the streets: neighbors cheerily greeting one another, older folks and young kids dawdling along the streets, and identical square laundry racks sticking out from every window.

“I still live in an old building like this,” she said. She spoke calmly, though her eyes constantly looked this way and that, fascinated by everything around her. She’d point out cats busily cleaning themselves, tame rabbits hopping about, overgrown loofah vines climbing the walls, and balconies decorated with potted plants.


那天我们真正的采访,是在对周遭老公房的闲逛途中开始的。

这是典型的“工人新村”,和王占黑从小的生长环境很像,邻里间闹忙的招呼声,形形色色的儿童和老叟,甚至还有一色一样的长方形晾衣架。

“我现在还住在这样的老公房呀。”她的语调漫不经心,眼神却总在到处张望,指给我看正在舔毛的猫咪、大门牙的兔子、攀缘蔓生的丝瓜藤,还有户高楼的人家种了好多盆花草。

In her Neighborhood Heroes series, the “neighborhoods” are the apartment blocks and residential complexes built as worker housing in the late 20th century—a common sight in Chinese cities—while the “heroes” are the ordinary residents: security guards, fruit vendors, trash collectors. These humble characters take center stage as the stars of her stories.

Wang has a knack for striking up conversations with strangers. As we walked and took pictures, curious neighbors would approach us, and she readily made small talk.

“Is this your dog? What a good boy!”

“Yep! He’s an old dog, over ten years old. He was even on T.V. back in the day.”

“That old? How long have you lived here?”

The conversation was animated, with the old man speaking in Shanghainese and Wang answering in her Jiaxing dialect. As the sky darkened above us, her eyes seemed to gleam even more brightly.


“街道英雄”这个系列的小说,“街道”,指的就是老公房、老小区、上世纪末建的工人新村;“英雄”就大不同了,看门的、卖水果的、捡垃圾的,在王占黑的笔下,这些人物用吴语作对白,摇身一变,成为登台亮相的主角。

王占黑是善于和这些人打交道的。我们一路走一路拍,碰到好奇的街坊来问,王占黑会自然地搭话:

“爷叔这只狗是你养的哦?噶乖。”

“是的,伊十几岁咯!老早还上过电视的。”人家答。

“哇岁数老大啦!那爷叔你住这里多久啦?”

老爷爷讲着上海话,占黑讲着嘉兴方言,两个人开开心心聊起天来。外面的天光渐渐变暗,却显得她的眼睛特别亮。

Wang gives her characters intriguing names: Xiao Guan (Little Official), Lao Jin (Old Gold), Chun Guang (Spring Light), and so on. Many of these are cobbled together from names she heard called out in waiting rooms in banks or hospitals, or which she happened across in short news items. With some rearranging and a lot of revision, she created a series of old “neighborhood heroes.”

“In the beginning, both books were called ‘Neighborhood Heroes,’ but the titles were overhauled in the editorial process,” she recalls. “I suppose everyone’s definition of a hero is different. For some people, heroes are mighty individuals, such as a military general. But my interpretation is different.”


王占黑给小说里的人物取名很有意思。小官、阿金、春光……很多人名是她从医院或银行的叫号板上东拼西凑来的,加上日常见闻的琐事,拾掇一下,加上不断修改,构建出一个个生活在街道里老英雄。

“其实两本书(《街道江湖》和《空响炮》)最开始我都起了‘街道英雄’这个名字,但最后过审的时候改了。”她说,“可能是大家对‘英雄’的理解不一样吧。对有些人来说,英雄是很伟大的,是那种领军人物。但我的理解不一样。”

Wang began writing the first piece in her series just after high school, inspired by Xiao Guan, a security guard who looked like he’d been around the block a few times and would make a good story. But once she got to university, she stopped, and when she eventually looked back, the stories and their characters had aged: she discovered that heroes can grow old. They’re just ordinary people.

Not long ago, speaking on Yixi—a platform akin to TED talks—Wang said: “There are a lot of lovable people in that world, and a lot who are lovable and despicable at the same time. But I like to see them as larger than life. Others might say they’re just the common folk, but I like to see them as heroes. Others might say they’re a lost cause, but I want to sing their glories.”

When she published the collection in two books, she changed the title from “Neighborhood Heroes,” but her name for the people hasn’t changed. She still calls them heroes.


早在高三毕业的时候,王占黑就开始写了这系列的第一篇,那时候她看到的看门人小官充满着江湖气。但是到大学以后停一停,再回过头来看,故事和人物就多了几个立面——因为她发现,英雄是会老的,英雄也是平凡人。

在不久前“一席”的讲座上,王占黑是这么说的:“在那个世界里面有很多可爱的人,也有可爱又可恨的人,有人会觉得他们是小的,但我愿意把他们看大了;有人会觉得他们是平凡的,我愿意叫他们英雄;有人会说他们是历史上一批走到穷途末路的人,但我愿意写他们的生龙活虎。”

正式出书的时候,“街道英雄”这个书名改了,但对那些人的称谓没改,还是叫英雄。

2 / A Little Kid in Momentous Era

Ah Ming is one of Wang Zhanhei’s many neighborhood heroes.

One day around noon, when the trash collectors got to the last building, they picked an old woman out of the trash. She’d fallen head-first into the bin and was now fast asleep. When they pulled her out, her whole body gave off a sour stench, and her hair was soaked in a soupy liquid. Wrapped around her breast was a misshapen rubber apron. They turned her over to look and saw—good lord, it’s little old Ah Ming! The one who lives in the garage at the western end of the neighborhood.
(Click here to read more from this excerpt)

In fact, stories like this aren’t so unusual in the Yangtze region, not even in Shanghai. After a layoff or some other misfortune, some people turn to scavenging to get by. A lot of what they take can’t be sold, and they end up hoarding piles of trash. Their stories make the news all too often. But these people, who often face looks of contempt from strangers on the street, are too quickly forgotten about.

But Wang writes about them.

In the story, Ah Ming is fished out of the trash bin and sent to the hospital, but before long she goes back to her trash-picking life. Wang doesn’t give her a tragic ending, yet the story gives you pause.


2/大时代,小朋友

阿明老太太,也是王占黑笔下众多街道英雄中的一个。

“有一天中午,捉垃圾的人捉到最后这栋楼,从垃圾桶里捉出了一个老人。她一头栽进去睡着了。拖出来的时候,浑身酸臭,汤水浸透头发,胸前揣着一块变形的橡胶板。人们翻过身来一看,呀,是住在最靠西边车库里的阿明老太太。”
(点击可阅读更多《阿明的故事》节选)

好巧不巧,这样的故事大概在江南一带并不罕见,在上海也有。因为下岗或种种缘故,有些人会为了减轻家庭负担出来捡垃圾,捡来的垃圾很多又卖不掉,囤积如山。这样的人事,大多数会出现在新闻报道里,众人看一看,啧啧议论两声,忘了。

但王占黑写下来。

小说的结尾,阿明被人从垃圾桶里捞出来,医院里呆呆,不久又继续过上了捡垃圾的生活。她没有给她悲惨的结局,但看完让人久久沉默。

There’s also Chun Guang, who works as a carpenter, Zhao Guangming, who delivers milk, Mei Fen, a middle-aged woman who waits anxiously for her daughter to find a husband. Wang writes their everyday household struggles.

Over time, her cast of characters grew and grew, and eventually became a series. Wang also came to understand her own style. “After figuring out what my quirks were, I got a clearer sense of what I wanted to write, what I could write, and what I could try to write. Some people love to banter and are always shooting the breeze. Some people are always thinking about the past, and are a bit solemn. I want to include a lot of different kinds of people, and use different styles.”

Wang doesn’t purposefully romanticize her characters, nor does she intend for readers to leave with some profound takeaway. She describes these older residents in old neighborhoods in a four-word phrase:

Laid-off factory workers have an expression, nan bao nü chao: “secure men, super women.” It means the men work as security guards, the women work in a supermarket. For every ten families where factory workers were laid off, seven or eight are like that. Mei Fen and her husband were no exception.
(Click here to read more from this excerpt)

Secure men, super women. These are trivial things—nothing thrilling or out of the ordinary. But isn’t there a heroism in these stories?


还有做木匠生活的春光,给家家户户送牛奶的赵光明,等女出嫁等到心焦的中年妇女美芬,这些小老百姓的家长里短之事,王占黑把他们当成“人物志”来写。

人物越来越多,渐成一个系列,王占黑也慢慢意识到自己的风格。“发现自己特点之后,会更明确自己希望写什么样的,能够写什么样的,还可以尝试写什么样的——比如有些人是那种很戏谑的形象,就是我们常说的‘嘲叽叽’的;还有些是怀旧的,有些严肃的。会希望包括很多不同人,用不同的方式。”

当然了,她不会刻意美化这些人物,也不会给他们附加宏大的主题。她用四个字,专门概括这些在老小区里老区的人。

“下岗工人里有一句话叫作‘男保女超’。男的当保安,女的当超市店员,十个下岗双职工家庭里,七八个是这种搭配。美芬夫妻随大流。”
(点击可阅读更多《美芬的小世界》节选)

“男保女超”,细民琐事,也可能就是些陈芝麻烂谷子,但怎么不能说成是“英雄传奇”呢?

On our way to the market, Wang stepped into a little shop selling eggs.

She doesn’t have to ask how much fresh chicken eggs and salted duck eggs cost per pound. After her father passed away, she had to take charge of the cooking. “My mom can’t cook, so I learned from my dad,” she says. From a young age, Wang followed her father around the neighborhood, and a lot of what she knows, like how to talk to strangers and how to haggle over prices, she learned directly from him.

Wang’s fiction is based on the stories of city dwellers set against the backdrop of fast-moving times. She doesn’t look down on her characters from on high, but sees herself as “a little kid from an old neighborhood.” She looks up to everyone in older generations, and her veneration of these heroes comes partly from her respect for her elders. and partly from her inborn empathy.

Before we get to the market, Wang says she doesn’t want to take photos there. “There are a lot of ways to connect with familiar spaces,” she says. “But this sort of ‘photo shoot,’ I don’t know, it feels wrong.”


我们走去菜场,在一家卖蛋的小铺前,王占黑走了进去。

鸡蛋多少钱一斤,咸鸭蛋多少钱一斤,王占黑知道。爸爸去世后,她是那个掌厨的人。“我妈妈不会做饭。这都是我爸爸教我的。” 占黑从小跟着爸爸在街道里窜,怎么跟陌生人搭话,怎么讨价还价,她得到了真传。

王占黑的小说,就取材于这大时代背景下的小市民故事。她不会把自己放在很高的位置去看,反而把自己当成 “一个老小区的小朋友”,所以觉得每个长辈都高高大大。伟岸的英雄形象,一是来自于对年长者的尊敬,二则来自于下笔时不自觉的悲悯。

就在要走到马路菜场的路上,王占黑和我说,我们就不要去那里拍照了吧。“和熟悉的空间沟通的方式有很多,但这样‘摆拍’的话,我不知道,我有点难过。”她说。

3 / A Pen in My Father’s Hand

Her new book Jiedao Jianghu is dedicated to “Jia Tao the king.” Jia Tao was her father, who didn’t actually read her stories. “He’d just pick one up, look at the title, and say something like, ‘Oh, you’re writing about Ah Ming! Looks great!'” she reminisces.”My mom’s the one who often reads my books and proudly shows my work to other people.”

Wang is an animal lover. When we ran into a dog that came up to her barking, she just held a finger up to her lips to tell it, “Shh! Stop barking. You’re going to get yelled at.” Her dad also loved animals. The two of them used to talk about what they’d name their dog if they had one, but sadly Wang’s mom wouldn’t let them get one. “I still want a dog, but my boyfriend doesn’t,” she sighs.


3/“老王的一支笔”

新书《街道江湖》的卷首,印着“献给嘉涛大王”。嘉涛大王就是占黑的爸爸。虽然,爸爸本来不会看她的小说。“我爸爸以前会拿起来看看标题,‘哦,写阿明啊!写得不错!’就这样。反而是我妈妈,会经常看,也喜欢拿给别人看。”

王占黑喜欢小动物。小区里碰到人家屋里的小狗,冲她汪汪叫,她举起手指向它示意:“嘘!勿好叫了噢,要被骂了。”

占黑的爸爸也喜欢。以前父女两个会凑一起商量,家里要是养狗的话要叫什么名字。但可惜的是她妈妈不让。“现在我也想养,但是我男朋友不让……”说着,很无奈的样子。

What her father passed on to her is small but substantial. “My dad liked how I’d meet different people and ‘forge my own path.’ He didn’t teach me anything groundbreaking, but he had his own personal life philosophy. Most of all, he gave me a pair of eyes to observe the world around me. In some ways, I’m just a pen in his hand, recording the world we both lived in.”


爸爸给她带去的财富,很细小,却很有分量。 “我爸喜欢我结交不同的人,‘出去闯’。他倒没有教我很了不起的事,他有自己的一套哲学在。但他给了我一双眼睛,去看身边的世界。”王占黑一直这么说,“我可能就是老王手下的一支笔吧,去写下我和他共同生活的世界。”

When praising a writer’s work, critics sometimes say that it epitomizes an age, or that it raises a style to new heights. Yet Wang isn’t that sort of writer, nor does she aspire to be. She discovers people who have been washed ashore by the waves of time—wary grains of sand, swept away, stranded, and heaped together to form a beach where Wang Zhanhei, like a curious child, kneels down with her magnifying glass and calls out to her dad to come take a look.

No matter how many neighborhoods there are, or how many stories, for Wang, the real hero is her father.

Not long ago, I clicked on her Douban page in search of a bibliography of her works. Looking at the comments section, I noticed next to her name a few extra words: “Jia Tao the king.”


Both of Wang Zhanhei’s books, Jiedao Jianghu (“Neighborhood Adventurers”) and Air Cannon are now available (in Chinese) on the Neocha Shop.


文学史上称颂作家,会说其人其作品“代表了一个时代”,或者把某种风格特质“提高到一个新的高度”,但王占黑不是这一类,也没有这样的野心。她发现了被时代浪涛拍到岸边的那些人,一个个,像一颗颗谨小慎微的沙石,不当心被卷走了,不当心留下了,更多细碎的沙砾聚成了滩。王占黑是会好奇地蹲下身、拿着放大镜、叫爸爸快来看的那个人。

其实无论再多的街道,再多的故事,大概在她心里,爸爸才是那个永远当之无愧的“英雄”吧。

文章写到这里,我点进她豆瓣找书目链接。在评论区瞥了一眼,忽然发现在她“占黑”的名字边上,有个小括号,静默地写着“嘉涛大王”。


王占黑的两本著作《街道江湖》和《空响炮》都在 Neocha 商店中有售。

Douban: ~/WangZhanhei

 

Contributor: Chen Yuan
Photographer: Chan Qu


豆瓣~/WangZhanhei

 

供稿人: Chen Yuan
摄影师: 
Chan Qu