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Fiction Asian American

Celia, Misoka, I

by (author) Xue Yiwei

translated by Stephen Nashef

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2022
Asian American, 21st Century, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2022
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Mar 2022
    List Price

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A meditation on the meaning of life in an increasingly global world, from acclaimed Chinese-Canadian author Xue Yiwei.

Set in modern-day Montreal, Celia, Misoka, I is the story of a middle-aged Chinese man who has been living in the city for fifteen years. After the death of his wife, he begins to reflect on his past and how he has ended up alone in Canada, a solitary member of the Chinese diaspora. It is in this period of angst and uncertainty, during the most unusual of winters, that he meets two women by Beaver Lake, on Montreal’s Mount Royal. They, too, have their own stories: stories of their own personal plights, which connect present to past, and West to East.

The distinct paths taken by these three characters — Celia, Misoka, and “I” — span continents and decades, but, whether by chance or design, converge in Montreal, like mysterious figures in an ancient Chinese Zen painting. After coming together, the three begin to examine who they are, where they might belong, and how to navigate otherness and identity in a globalized world.


About the authors

Xue Yiwei is an award-winning Chinese writer born in Chenzhou and raised in Changsha, in Hunan province. He has a B.Sc. in Computer Science from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an M.A. in English Literature from Université de Montréal, and a Ph. D. in Linguistics from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. He has taught Chinese literature at Shenzhen University and is the author of sixteen books, including four novels--Desertion (1989, reissued 2012), Dr. Bethune's Children (2011), Farewells from a Shadow (2013), and Empty Nest (2014)--and five collections of stories. He lives in Montreal.

Xue Yiwei's profile page

Stephen Nashef was born in Glasgow and lives in Beijing where he works as a data analyst. He translates from Chinese and writes in English, mostly poetry but also fiction and non-fiction. He was recently awarded a Henry Luce Foundation Fellowship for Chinese poetry translation.


Stephen Nashef's profile page

Excerpt: Celia, Misoka, I (by (author) Xue Yiwei; translated by Stephen Nashef)

The Beginning of the Beginning

It was the most unusual winter of my time in Montreal, the most unusual winter of my time in this world. One thousand nine hundred and fifty-two days have passed since I left the city and, even now, I find the events that took place that winter around Mount Royal hard to believe. Sometimes they return, in my dreams at night or my daytime reveries, but are inevitably cut short by the same callous question: Was it real? Was it real? Was it real? I despise this question. It persists and recurs like a terminal illness, intent on severing the connection between me and that inconceivable winter, its inconceivable passion. Each time this question cuts short my reveries and dreams I feel the deep wound it inflicts.

For Montreal, it was a very ordinary winter. It was no longer than usual, and days when the temperature dropped below minus twenty you could count on both hands. But in that most ordinary of winters life opened a window for me it had never opened before and would never open again. To this day I still find the scene I saw through that window hard to believe.

It seems that everything began with the death of my wife. In her final days, my feelings for her underwent a huge transformation. I was repelled by the massive changes in her physical condition, perhaps even disgusted. I was scared by the pain she was suffering, perhaps even terrified. Of course, I still did my best to look after her, but the “still” in that statement conceals a change that had taken place. A cool rationality now dictated my behaviour rather than the warm spontaneity of feeling I had once felt. I no longer saw her as the woman with whom I had lived for twenty-three years. She was but a skeleton to which clung the barest remnants of sentience. When I held her hand it was out of a cold sense of duty, and when she lost consciousness for the last time, I was no longer flustered by what I knew was happening. I woke up my daughter, who had just fallen asleep, and asked her if she could call the emergency services. “Do you think I should?” she asked, her voice frail with exhaustion. I knew what she meant. That there was no point. “We should at least call,” I said, out of obligation only.

The paramedics arrived in fifteen minutes, and eight minutes after that my wife stopped breathing.

It was during an annual checkup that my wife discovered something was wrong. Further tests established that the cancer that was growing in her pancreas was in its middle stages. Only seven months passed between the checkup that revealed something was wrong and the moment she stopped breathing. For the first four months, her condition was relatively stable. When the chemotherapy started, she did all she could to stay in good spirits and stick to her normal schedule, even continuing to help out every now and again at the convenience store. But with the arrival of the new year her condition began to deteriorate rapidly. The morning she collapsed in the bathroom was the first time we called the emergency services and she was hospitalized. From that day she began to lose weight rapidly, her mood began to fluctuate violently, and her body, tormented by pain, began to edge visibly toward death.

The day my wife was hospitalized I entrusted the convenience store to a friend who had always wanted to buy it and spent all of my time by her side. Before I knew it, six weeks had passed, and in the first week of February her doctor told me that there was not much point in moving on to the next stage of treatment. I decided to take her home. Although my wife must have known what this meant, she was happy with the decision and her mood in the first days at home was noticeably better than it had been in the hospital. Every lunchtime a nurse would come to check up on her and every other day a religious friend of ours would visit to pray for her. This friend would ask me to join her. Neither my wife nor I were Christian, but our friend was convinced that my praying could still lessen my wife’s psychological and physical pain. When it came to prayer, I have to admit, I was not very sure of what I was doing or even for whom I was doing it — as I prayed for my wife, I was also praying for myself, praying that when God came for me, he would not come so slowly. I did not want to suffer like she had. Within three weeks of my wife returning home, I was signing her death certificate.

My wife’s death was perhaps a release, both for her and for me. In comparison, the death that followed three months later brought a purer sense of despair, a passing no death certificate could account for — the death of the relationship between my daughter and me. In truth, the symptoms of our worsening relationship had become clear when she started middle school. That was the time when her reliance on and attachment to me began to diminish and our conversations and interactions became increasingly rare. A clear example of this was her attitude to birthdays. Before starting middle school, she would look forward each year to the birthday present I gave her, and every year on my birthday she would make me a card, something, for some reason, she never did for her mother. But when she started middle school she stopped caring about my presents and even stopped remembering my birthday. So our relationship was already in dangerous waters when, after graduating from high school, she did not choose the university I wanted her to go to, or even the major I thought she should take. Despite all of this, I was not prepared for our relationship’s demise. After she graduated from university, I knew that she was not planning to continue in education like I hoped she would, that she wanted to find a job right away, and a job far away from Montreal at that, but I did not think that meant that our relationship was doomed! When the last of her applications to work in Toronto and Vancouver was rejected, I was secretly pleased to see the downcast expression on her face as she moped around the house. Then, when I came home in the evening five days later, she told me she had been accepted for the only position she had applied for in Montreal. Before I had a chance to congratulate her, she told me she had found somewhere to live near her workplace and was going to move out in a few days. I had not expected this at all. “Why do you have to live somewhere else?” I asked her. “I want to,” she replied coldly. She moved out that weekend, and the move was more drastic than I could have possibly imagined: she had not only moved out from the house, but also from my life. In the following four months she did not phone me once, nor did she answer my calls or respond to my emails. She did not even tell me where she was living. In the end I couldn’t take it anymore and I sent her an angry email in which I wrote, “As your father, I at least have the right to know if you are dead or alive.” I thought the anger would prompt her to reply quickly, if only to let me know that she was okay, and I waited, on edge, for ten days. It was a suspense more agonizing than that which had gripped me during her mother’s final days, and I began to lose my hold on reality. On the evening of the tenth day I bumped into one of her middle school classmates in the supermarket and asked her if she had heard from my daughter. To my surprise, she responded without hesitation in the affirmative, saying they had eaten dinner together the night before. At first I was overjoyed because I knew that my daughter was alive and well (at least up to the day before), but this was followed by a sense of humiliation. She cared more for a middle school classmate than she did her own father. It was clear that I no longer needed to wait for her reply. Whether she was living or not, I knew our relationship was dead, though I would never know the reason. Perhaps there was no reason at all beyond the simple fact that all young people tend to turn against their parents at some point in their lives.

Editorial Reviews

Xue’s style and content are unorthodox in contemporary English literature... his new book is thought-provoking. Do random events or small trip-ups sometimes determine our destiny, or do they become minor glitches in the stream of our lives?

Winnipeg Free Press

Hugely gifted, Xue Yiwei is a fresh and most distinctive voice in contemporary Chinese literature. I recommend him highly.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans

Celia, Misoka, I shows the plight of modern men and women in the era of globalization through the suspenseful life stories of the three characters. Xue skillfully employs a narrative structure similar to that of a detective novel, in which the characters take turns to reveal the darkest memories of the enigmatic women.

World Literature Today

This is an excellent novel.

The Modern Novel

Celia, Misoka, I is about the importance of storytelling in this ‘age of chaos, marked by the collapse of authority, the destruction of the individual, and the disappearance of meaningful relationships.’ The narrative, no matter how fanciful or flighty, captures the possibility and promise of meaningful connection.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Xue Yiwei is a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature. He stays alone and aloof, far away from restive crowds back in his homeland. For him, to write is to make a pilgrimage to his masters: Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Proust. As an admirer of his, I salute his courage, his stamina, and his love of solitude.

Ha Jin, National Book Award-winning novelist

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