Transgressing the world

Toughest to travel is the distance between two people. —Fiona Sze-Lorrain

What’s in a hypen, that great unsung hero of punctuation? Well, in the case of Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a lot. Fiona is a writer and an editor. She is a bridge between Asian-French and American cultural landscapes. And she lives in both France and New York City and is a translator and a solo zither concertist, to boot. In addition to connecting these seemingly different worlds, Fiona is also a poet whose work was recently published by Marick Press. Water the Moon is a slim, elegant volume of poetry marked by a yearning for intimacy. Of course, before anything else, before being a concertist or a poet or a taut hyphen between two cultures, she’s an eclectic reader who enjoys novels, memoirs, folk tales, historical narratives, and mythologies. For more on Fiona, please visit  

Who are you? 

I don’t know who I am, but what I am, yes! A wife of an authentic, exigeant Frenchman who has been leading a profound and artful life since the 1960s, live in Paris, divide time in New York, born in Singapore, of mixed cultural heritages, an aspiring cook and baker who tackles different facets of French gastronomy, conscientious about saving every tree, plant and paper, “analyze” first-edition books, write poetry, edit a magazine, pluck an ancient Chinese zither and play Bach for a couple of hours everyday, practice script calligraphy, in the midst of working on a French critical monograph on Gao Xingjian’s theatre aesthetics…  

What was the last novel you read? How did you like it?  

Against the Grain (À rebours)

There were a couple of books that I just finished reading; a French novel, a Russian memoir (translation), and two other English titles: À rebours (1884) by J-K. Huysmann, which is a hallucinating and mystical classic; the humbling and inspiring Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstram; Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin by Maeve Brennan (whose lucidity I enjoy), and a thick but worthy biography on Victor Hugo by Graham Robb.  

How important are imagery, meter, repetition, and other poetic devices in your enjoyment of novels?  

Poetic devices? I’m unsure how exactly, though I’m sure somehow and somewhere they do play a role! Power of images, an attractive and confident voice, the style of embedding narrative moments within paragraphs… these help me to better enjoy novels.  

Can you say a little about your interest in “subversive” literature — and perhaps suggest a book or two (or three) for global citizens to read?  

Perhaps we may have different understandings of the notion “subversive” — by that, I do read and mean it as “transgressive.” Any form of literature that is pacesetting, I believe, must transgress. What is “subversive” and what is not — beyond cultural differences and time difference? Who should decide the definition of “subversive,” when the word itself carries a world without limits? Is André Breton’s Nadja subversive? How about Marquis de Sade? Lolita? D.H. Lawrence? Writings by Karl or Groucho Marx? One of my all-time favorites is Living My Life (1931) by Emma Goldman. Try the Bible. Is it “subversive”? Well, I have four copies of it, in three different versions and languages. I do not recommend The Little Red Book of Mao Tse-tung.  

Who is one of your favorite poets, and what does he/she do with language and experience that a novelist like Gao Xingjian or Virginia Woolf does not?  

Poetic voices that return to me constantly over the years are many: Wislawa Szymborska, Pierre Reverdy, W.H. Auden, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, Hai Zi, Theresa Cha, James Wright, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, André Breton, Su Dongpo… Poets whose work inspire me greatly happen to be very strong prose writers, too. Breton’s Poisson soluable (The Soluable Fish) is a strong example. At first glance, novels and poetry are entirely different beasts, but they’re really looking for the same piece of meat. Perhaps a poet goes for intensity and concentrated visuality, while a novelist exercises patience of unraveling narratives and poeticism over varying moments of originality, impulses, instincts, and addiction. Virginia Woolf, for instance, clearly explores poetry in her novels, aesthetically and contextually. The Waves, for me, is a hybrid work, meandering between prose poetry and fiction. How her language delves into conflicting streams of consciousness (or narrative voices) and blocks of musicality rendered purely by language work is totally unpredictable. Each different read brings different surprises and discoveries. Ultimately, I guess a novelist, just like a poet, seeks time (with a capital “T”) and timelessness in terms of an experience, both from the perspectives of a writer’s and a reader’s. Honestly, I hedge the question a little simply because both a poet and a novelist are writers, concerned with writing as a process. They believe in language as a bird with mighty wings, even though they see different skies.  

How do you bookmark pages, leaf, string, feather, dog ear, shoe lace, or some other newfangled device?  

I bookmark pages with colored pens, pencils, crayons, teaspoons, chopsticks… and tiny pieces of paper like outdated receipts and metro tickets. No, I do not dog ear. I think that is a sin (!), an act of negligence and disrespect to a book as an organic object that has a life and dignity of its own. That said, guess what?! I have indeed committed this crime/sin before … to secondhand books, for example, and worst, to books that I borrowed from public libraries! (I have confessed and have turned over a new leaf since those times of “delinquence.”)  

What are the ideal conditions for you to read with enjoyment?  

Quiet moments of solitude in a winter afternoon, by a fireplace, in my lavender armchair, with the biggest mug of richly textured chocolat chaud** (i.e. the kind you find at Brasserie Lipp) and magnifique, palm-sized macarons à la noisette bought from the artisanal Viennese pâtisserie at rue de l’École de Médicine in the Latin Quarter. Alas, I don’t think I am capable of reading with undivided attention in Jardin du Luxembourg, where Parisians dogwalk or jog half-naked, with our American counterparts (i.e. tourists) exclaiming in the heart of the city. 

Is there an author you wished had the ear of President Obama?

J.K. Rowling (the left ear) and Li Po (the right ear).  

Do you ever kiss a line, a page, a cover of a book?  

No. The smell of a book is something sensual to me, though. A book is like a man, a lover, a night… n’est-ce pas?  

Why do you read?  

I read to escape; I write to confront.  

# # #  

**Like most addicts, I don’t play favorites with my obsessions. Between my love of books and 72% cacao, I’m a happy, go-lucky bigamist. So when Fiona drizzled “chocolat” in her description of solitary bliss, I got hungry. In case you did, too, here’s Fiona’s favorite recipe:  

Chocolat Chaud  

–1.5 cups of milk
–6.5 ounces of good quality, semi-sweet chocolate, finely powdered or chopped
–A teaspoon of brown sugar
–Coarse salt (optional)
–Whipped cream

1. Heat up milk mixed with chocolate and a teaspoon of brown sugar and dash of salt until boiling.  

2. Then simmer and stir thoroughly, adjusting heat as needed. Simmer for three minutes for a rich texture. Serve with whipped cream, sugar, and walnuts, to taste.

One Response to Transgressing the world

  1. This was a wonderful interview! How I would love to sit and have a chat with you over chocolat chaud and macarons! They are my favorite of all delicacies. (Perhaps our paths will cross on a future visit to Paris?)

    I too cannot condone the dog-earing of pages…unless they are books of nonfiction. For some reason that makes it acceptable to me, as if the nonfiction book invites interaction with its reader that the fiction book (or poetry!) does not. I’m not sure of the source of this hypocrisy, but it is what it is.

    (And thank you for sharing the recipe, I look forward to a quiet moment when I can try it out.)


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