Backstory: 三毛 (Sanmao) is a Chinese-born Taiwanese writer who was able to capture the imagination of my mother’s generation with her book, Stories of the Sahara, published in 1976.
Sanmao, in a nutshell is “an incurable romantic, a lonely dreamer and a gifted drifter”.
After falling in love with the Sahara from an article she read in National Geographic, Sanmao, a non-traditionalist even by 21st century standards, follows her heart to the great desert. Stories of the Sahara is a window into the life she builds there and her musings on the interactions she has with her Spanish husband and Sahwari neighbours in this completely different world to what she or her audience has ever experienced before.
More than four decades later, I am one of many young women who are finding and quickly falling in love with the unique blend of kindness, wisdom and freedom present in her work. It is such a pity that more of it is not translated into English as I truly believe many will resonate with this gentle force of nature of a woman now and into the future.
I won’t say much more about Stories of the Sahara except that you absolutely should get your hands on a copy. Currently, I’m on book 4/15 of her entire collection with the intention of reading them all. I wanted to share one of my favourite stories so far from 稻草人手记/A Scarecrow’s Scribbles from Sanmao’s time in the Canary Islands.
Please forgive any unintended errors or creative liberties I’ve taken in this translation. I hope you enjoy 江洋大盗/The Infamous Outlaw.
If you want to hear about the Chen family, I have to begin with our ancestors.
We had generations of scholars with not much to their names. The Chens were all humble in possessions guided by a wealth of morals and principles.
You see, we didn’t just record people’s names in our family tree. Our scribe and accountant diligently keeps track of everyone’s ethical income and expenses and the balance sheets he kept were never wrong.
Such is the family I grew up. Logically speaking, you’d expect my parents to be fielding marriage proposals left, right and center ever since I was a little girl. Alas, not so.
To borrow a phrase from the bible – if my parents were a grape tree, I would not be a hanging vine. In my own words, if the fortune teller was ever to try and predict my future, by the time he gets halfway through his calculations, the disgraceful daughter that I am would’ve already lost the entire family fortune.
Ever since I was born, I’ve locked away a huge secret in my heart. After I learnt how to speak, I’ve made sure to keep my lips sealed tight about this matter. They say blood runs thicker than water but even my parents have not heard even a peep about this.
What terrible secret do I have that’s making me act all mysterious?
Fine, I’ll tell you, but only you. And only if you promise you won’t turn around and tell John Smith and Jane Doe! Even if you are in a tight spot and want to sell me out…just remember that Sanmao isn’t anyone special and you will get pennies for this information.
As I said earlier, ever since I was born, I knew this truth about myself. Even though on the surface, I don’t look any uglier or different in any discernable way from anyone else, that’s actually not the case.
I’m fake. Not only am I fake, I am also empty inside. I’m so goddamn empty I don’t even have any posters up on the barren walls of my insides. I don’t have a brain, heart, bravery or courage. I am well and truly a big black hole.
To give you another example of my condition, I’m like one of those scary aliens. They come to Earth on their UFOs and blend into humanity seamlessly. They are just like all these other happy people their living happy fulfilling lives. If you didn’t have any special powers to spot these aliens, you’d never be able to catch them out. I am one of those aliens.
I don’t enjoy being an empty person. Being hallow inside makes it harder to stay upright. When the wind blows, or a stranger accidentally bumps into me, or even when a small branch brushes against me, I would be knocked onto the ground, unable to get back up.
Ever since I could remember to when I turned fourteen, I would constantly be falling over. My body was covered in bruises and everyone was laughing at me. Even though I had nothing else inside me, my tear ducts and temper never let me down. Every time I fall, they’re there to join the party.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past fourteen years and I simply cannot go on like this. If this continues, surely before I hit my twenties, I would have had a final fatal fall to my death. If I don’t want to die young, I need to find another way to save my life.
What can I do? After careful consideration, I decide to copy those shameless japanese neighbours of mine and become a thief.
This world is so big and crowded, I figured. Everyone else has so much ready-made stuff. If I take a little from here and nip a little from there to fill up my empty hole, after a while, wouldn’t I become a full person?
After I made up my mind, I decided to get an X-ray.
(to be continued)