Silly Interview with John Chu, who will tell you about the great injustices of American Musical Theater

(Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal for “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere“)

Rachel Swirsky: I am completely fascinated by the translation work you and Ken and others are doing to bring Chinese SF to the US audience. (Also, I am very grateful for it as a reader and writer; I am so happy to be able to see those stories which I wouldn’t otherwise.) We talk a lot about the challenges of bringing something into a new cultural context–for obvious reasons!–but what are some of the good parts? Do stories pick up new resonances sometimes?

John Chu: A translation is a trade-off. (This is hardly an original thought.) Yes, we lose something in the process but it wouldn’t be worth doing at all if we didn’t also get something in return. At the end of the day, it’s is not practical to be fluent (enough) in every language that is the original language of some work that you’d like to read. (I’ve lost track of how many languages I’d need to be fluent in.) A really good translation, combined with knowledge of the culture the original work is a part of, can get you much of the way there. It is a way to experience what would otherwise be impractical to experience. (That said, I don’t think you should let yourself think you are, somehow, engaging directly with the original work. Translation is always an intermediated experience. If you want to engage directly with the original work, I’m afraid you need to become fluent in the language of the original work. And the standard is that you are fluent. If you can’t understand in that language well enough, you are probably better off with the translation.

Stories inevitably pick up new resonances. Part of translation is to get the readers of the translated work to feel what the readers of the original work feel. One way of getting there is to find equivalents (to the extent possible) for what can’t be directly translated, like the resonances of the story. For example, I translated a story once where each section was written in a distinct style. What I needed to do, then, was to find styles in English that had the same affect as the styles referenced in the original text then write the translation in those styles. The translations end up harkening back to different traditions of storytelling than the original, but the effect on the reader is much closer to reading the original than if I’d just translated the text so-called ‘literally.’ (Again, if you really need to see what the writer actually need, you need to read the original work directly.)

RS: Your wikipedia page calls you “an American microprocessor architect” before also mentioning that you are a writer and translator. It took me a minute, reading that, to parse it, and for a second I was wondering about what kinds of buildings you’d design. So, what kinds of buildings would you design?

JC: I love Brutalist and Modern architecture. (Postmodern architecture is also wonderful but we’re still in that period (or we’re still so close to it) so it’s hard to generalize.) One of the joys in visiting Chicago for me is that its skyline beautifully details the evolution of skyscrapers as tastes changed and construction methods improved. One of the things I most treasure about my trip to Helsinki is the day I played hooky from WorldCon and just walked around the city encountering one lovely piece of Modernist architecture after another. The juxtaposition of buildings from many eras in Helsinki was also a delight. (The city also inadvertently make it clear that we have left the Modernist Era. Still, if you are able—and it’s a lot of walking, sometimes on cobblestone–I highly recommend walking around Helsinki and engaging with one fabulous example of Modernism after another. It’s a beautiful city.)

The buildings I would aspire to design would probably draw on the sleek elegance of the International Style of Modernism whether I intend to or not. (It’s probably not literally true but one of the things I love about Chicago is that it kind of feels like a giant tribute to Mies van der Rohe, not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright (who, yes, is not of the International Style).) However, it’s the early 21st century, not the early-to-mid 20th century. Left to my own devices, I hope I would be brave enough to engage with humor, like Frank Gehry. (Not specifically his sense of humor, though. Mine. Frank Gehry is already the world’s best Frank Gehry. We don’t need another one.) I hope that my work would follow in the tradition blazed by Arata Isozaki, who pointedly does not design in any one architectural style. Instead, he is very site-specific and project-specific, letting those requirements dictate what the building needs to be. (Also, he just won the Pritzker Prize! *kermit flail*)

RS: I read an interview where you said that you make it a point to find out things about obscure musical theater history! Me, too! (I took classes in this! LOL.) What are some of your favorite forgotten musicals?

JC: Well, I’m not sure how forgotten these are but I do wish they were more popular:

The Golden Apple. I will flog that musical until it gets the mainstream recognition it deserves. Jerome Moross and John LaTouche set The Illiad and The Odyssey at the turn of the 20th century (and engage in a search for the truths necessary to survive the 20th century). I won’t say that it’s a perfect musical but the score is absolutely glorious. It’s appallingly short B’way run is one of the greater injustices of American Musical Theater. A mostly complete recording of the show was released in 2015 (and it’s absolutely worth getting).

You can see snippets from 2017 concert production (which I saw!) here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpEjaDW3feI

The Day Before Spring. Lerner & Loewe would go on to Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Before all that, they wrote The Day Before Spring. The story is nothing to write home about but the score is pretty terrific. (Bits of it was recycled into their later efforts.)

Sweet Adeline by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. It played B’way in 1929, Set in the 1890’s, it’s a lush, nostalgic story of a woman who becomes a Broadway star and her various failed relationships along the way. For me, its take home hit is a choral set piece in the middle of Act II called “Some Girl Is On Your Mind”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8S_1_MPRo4

St. Louis Woman. Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Book by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen (based on Bontemp’s novel God Sends Sunday). It’s the musical that “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Come” and “Come Rain, Come Shine” comes from. Love! Revenge! Murder! And a happy ending. Here is Audra McDonald singing “I Had Myself a True Love”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovMj0EHx-bc

Golden Boy. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Lee Adams. Book by Clifford Odets and William Gibson (not that one!) based on Odet’s play. It’s about a man who becomes a prizefighter to escape his ghetto roots. He does, but at a cost. I saw a concert production of this that makes the book never really worked. It has a lot of terrific songs though.

“While the City Sleeps” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuK-1oFj5sc

“Night Song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

“Stick Around” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for now.

RS: Relatedly, what words do you have for young gay, American men who don’t know who Judy Garland is?

JC: My feelings about this are weirdly nuanced. Basically, I don’t think it’s good to be the gay version of That Guy Who Wants Everyone To Read Heinlein. So I’m not going to be. Without taking anything away from the brilliance and genius of her work (and, at her best, Judy Garland was in a class of her own), it’s not unfair to say that the near-religious reverence for her was also, in part, a consequence of a culture that, as a matter of life or death, had to stay underground. The discovery and the love of her work was part of how you found your (secret) tribe. There is a reason why, once upon a time, one might discreetly inquire whether one was a “friend of Dorothy.” And, back then, if you were gay and never discovered a love for her work, I suppose you might have lived your entire life thinking you were the only one in the world and remained desperately and heart-breakingly alone? 🙁

Nowadays, though, on one hand, I’m not saying that we have achieved full equality. In fact, it feels like reactionary forces are desperate to drag us back into the closet. On the other hand, we are freer than we once were and the path to finding other gay men does not necessarily go through a discovery and a love of the works of Judy Garland. (Yes, she was a huge star in the mainstream, too. I’m making a point. Hush.) Gay culture has become much more diverse and much more mainstream. (I mean, RuPaul’s Drag Race is on VH1!) I think we may be inching towards the point where it’s not Gay Culture as much as it is just part of culture. Assimilation is a tricky topic and way outside the scope of this interview. However, to the extent that Gay Culture was a reaction to the systemic oppression of LGBTQ (although, in the case of Judy Garland, let’s face it, the demographic in question is mostly cisgender gay men), the way the culture shifts because we are no longer as oppressed can’t be a bad thing on the whole.

So, if you are a young, gay American man and musicals are not your thing, there’s no reason to subject yourself to Judy Garland. If you love musicals though (and I loved musicals long before I realized I was gay) and you have not yet encountered the works of Judy Garland, boy are you in for a treat.

RS: I also have some improv training, although I don’t feel like I use that a lot in my work. (I’m sure I have much less experience with it than you do.) What techniques prove especially useful?

JC: I actually have an entire lecture about this! This is what I talk about when I’m invited to fill an hour at a workshop or something. (The lecture, perhaps appropriately, is a constantly evolving work-in-progress.)

I steal shamelessly from the improv toolkit when I write. In improv, you are on an empty stage with a scene partner who, because the two of you are not telepathic, does not actually know what you are going to do (and visa versa). And yet, merely through the things you say and the things you do, you two are able to fill out an entire world and a relationship that leaves the audience satisfied. If you can do that with improv, imagine what you can do when you bring in the other tools that a writer also has at their disposal. Improv turns out to be a great lens (for me, anyway) to strip everything to its fundamentals, work the skills it takes to write a great scene, before you then add back in all the other things you can do. (Also, the ability to revise is huge. In improv, of course, you get only that one shot.)

Everything you do on stage makes a promise to the audience, whether you intended to or not. That promise has to be kept no matter how small it seems. So, if you walk from point A to point B, you jag around what you have decided is a table, you have defined the length and width of that table. Until someone moves the table or destroys the table or changes the location of the scene, no one can simply plow through that empty space. That would break the promise and throw the audience out of the reality you’ve created.

Improv forces you to consider, in real time, “OK, if this is true, what else is true?” The most obvious place to apply this is world building, but it’s a question that writers need to ask about everything. For example, once I played a scene where I squinted, shaded my eyes and my first line was something like, “OMG, you’re so happy, you’re glowing. I can barely stand to look at you.” Because my body language was that of someone looking at a very bright object and because I was working with a terrific partner, he immediately recognized that the glowing was literal, not metaphorical and that he was glowing out of joy. Now, because he’s an awesome partner, he took my second sentence also for its emotional truth and considered if I can’t look at him because he is so happy, what else must be true about me? The result was this really searing scene of loss and healing that neither one of us could have anticipated from my admittedly somewhat goofy opening offer.

RS: What projects are you currently working on?

JC: Being mostly a short story writer means I’m always in the middle of writing multiple somethings but I almost never have anything in progress that I can announce. I do have a story forthcoming at Uncanny Magazine and another story in the anthology, The Mythic Dream, forthcoming from Saga. As for what I’m currently writing, I have great hopes but nothing is locked down yet.

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

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One Response to Silly Interview with John Chu, who will tell you about the great injustices of American Musical Theater

  1. 1
    Duncan says:

    I see that the Department of Redundancy Department is back at work!

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