Shih-Wen Sue Chen teaches children’s literature at Deakin University, Australia, one of a very small number of universities which offers a major in children’s literature in the BA program. In her “Children’s Literature Around the World” unit, she introduces Chinese children’s literature in translation to her students. She has an impressive list of publications – see her staff page at Deakin University, where she is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature. Her most recent book is Children’s Literature and Transnational Knowledge in Modern China – Education, Religion, and Childhood, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. We are delighted that Shih-Wen Sue agreed to an interview with Amy Matthewson, who shares a common research interest in race relations and the representation of China and Chinese people in English-language popular publications. Thank you both very much for this interview!
AM: Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
SC: I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to the US when I was six years old. My love of literature was developed from a young age, since both of my parents were English professors. At home, there were books everywhere! Our bookshelves were custom-made ones that lined an entire wall and reached up to the ceiling. When I first returned to Taiwan, it was hard for me to adapt to school since my Chinese was only at a third-grader’s level when I was supposed to be in sixth grade. With a lot of private tutoring, I was able to catch up. After completing a BA at National Taiwan University in Foreign Languages and Literature, I won a scholarship to pursue my MA in English at the University of British Columbia, Canada. I received my PhD in Literature, Screen and Theatre Studies from the Australian National University. I have extensive experience in teaching literary studies to university students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds, having taught in the Australian National University, National Tsing Hua University, Tamkang University, and the University of British Columbia. I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, where I teach children’s literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.
AM: What books did you use to read as a child?
SC: My mother used to read bedtime stories to me and some of my favorites came from Zhongguo tonghua 《漢聲中國童話全集》(Chinese fairy tales), a 12-volume set published by Taiwanese publisher Han Sheng. There are 365 beautifully illustrated stories in the series and one that left an impression on me was a humorous story called “Mai Xiangpi” 《賣香屁》(Selling fragrant farts). I don’t remember the plot now, but I liked it so much as a kid that I retold it to my grandmother in Taiwanese dialect (because she did not understand Mandarin). I recall that I couldn’t stop laughing as I told her the story. Researchers have shown that children do love fart jokes!
Because I spent many childhood years in the United States, most of the books I read were American or British texts. I liked reading stories about horses, especially the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley and the classic Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Another animal story I loved was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The book taught me about the powerful effect that words can have on people’s perceptions of others. I think one of the reasons I decided to focus my research on Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature was because I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women as a child.
AM: Did any of the characters in your childhood books shape and/or influence your understanding of race and race relations as a child? Did any book in particular influence your current research interests?
SC: When I was in the US, I read books about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, and The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. My understanding of race relations was mostly framed in the context of the history of slavery in the US and these books made me see how evil slavery was. My elementary school in Michigan was special because in my classes, the majority of students were from international backgrounds. I think I only had four or five white American classmates each year, so I did not feel like an ethnic minority. At home, I remember my mother reading another story from Zhongguo tonghua about a Mongolian boy and his horse, which explains the origins of the horse-head fiddle 《蒙古少年的碼頭琴》. This led to a discussion with my mother about Mongolians and Han Chinese.
My current research interests were not influenced by any particular book I read as a child, but rather from accidentally discovering old copies of The Boy’s Own Paper (1879-1967) at the University of British Columbia’s library and becoming fascinated by the caricatures of Chinese people within its crumbling pages. I found there were many stories about China and the Chinese published in the pages of this periodical and decided to write my Masters’ thesis on the topic. I also analyse some of the materials I found in The Boy’s Own Paper in my book Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851-1911 (Routledge, 2013).
AM: What do you think of children’s books today? Can you see any positive (or
SC: Children have access to many wonderful, imaginative, and innovative books today. There are so many excellent authors that it is hard to keep up with all the good books coming out. I’m glad that my colleagues and I formed a YA book group where we discuss two books a month to keep abreast of the latest trends in YA publishing. We have mostly been choosing Australian novels, particularly works by indigenous authors. A recent book we all enjoyed was Catching Teller Crow by sister and brother authors Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. It is a gripping mystery written in both verse and prose and explores colonialism, racism, and grief. I found the father-daughter relationship particularly touching. While there are more opportunities for POC authors to be published nowadays, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement highlights that there is still a lot of work to be done. I also think children in English-speaking countries would benefit from reading more translated books.
AM: Have you considered writing a children’s book yourself? What would you write about and why?
SC: A lot of friends have asked me this but I don’t have the urge to write a children’s book. If I were to write one, I would probably write a historical novel set in the 19th century.
Thanks again to Shih-Wen Sue Chen and Amy Matthewson
Shih-Wen Sue Chen — https://www.deakin.edu.au/about-deakin/people/sue-chen — twitter: @snoowayc
Amy Matthewson — https://amymatthewson.com/ — twitter: @Visual_Cultures