In Chris Marker's 1982 film, Sans Soleil
, the female narrator whom we never see—Alexandra Stewart in the English version—reads, in a simultaneously insistent and soothing voice, fragments of letters from a travelling filmmaker against the backdrop of footage from Japan and Africa, two seemingly contrasting worlds that share some deep resonances.
These are letters of broken dolls; dozing commuters dreaming of sex and violence, a giraffe being shot repeatedly but not dying immediately (a visual echo of Orwell's elephant
); permutations of injured time and confusing space; wounds like vaginas that never heal; poetry and insecurity; a direct gaze from an alluring woman lasting “a twenty-fourth of a second”; spiralling memory that gains strength in the vertigo of time...
Doris Lessing wrote that she once read a book about Matteo Ricci—"a traveller to China in the sixteenth century, and when he wrote a letter home to Italy he knew it would take seven years for a reply." They must have had so much patience then, oblivious to the conveniences of future mankind. And what if the reply, anticipated for seven years, was lost in the translation of time?
We don't need to wait that long for a reply, unless the person that we are tying to correspond with is no longer living, and in that case, a reply is never coming. Or if a reply is somehow trapped in a contemporary labyrinth of logistics or in a digital dead end. In this age, postal services in most parts of the world are relatively speedy, reliable. I doubt, however, that many people regularly post letters and postcards—the two commonest forms of physical personal correspondence that I can think of.
It is hard to imagine reverting back to life as it was in the past when waiting—waiting for your letter to be delivered, waiting for a reply to arrive—was an integral part of life.
As letters and postcards become increasingly old-fashioned and uncommon in our day-to-day exchanges with others, their appearance in film and poetry, often as an honest conceit, particularly captures my attention. Sans Soleil
is one such example. And two poems I revisited recently—both by Hong Kong poets—also make use of letters/postcards. In Leung Ping-kwan
's "Postcards from Prague," the poet talks about receiving postcards from a friend with whom he used to argue into the night about poetry and politics. This friend, now "training around," makes himself visible by sending postcards to the poet from "great places," a situation the poet reflects on by saying: "The pictures on the cards are always new but you’re still the same." In "The Letter Writer," Xi Xi sympathetically describes a woman whose profession is writing letters—an "age-old method to transmit messages"—for illiterate people. Comparing herself to this woman, who "throw[s] herself into each role, using the first-person pronoun / To flesh out the details as though they are her own," Xi Xi believes "she and I much the same / Each some sort of writer."
To my romantic mind, I see each issue of Cha as a collection of postcards dispatched to the world once every three months, with reflections and thoughts from contributors far and near, multi-voiced, cross-cultural. Every edition is a unique combination of these perspectives—no two are the same, yet our intention remains unchanged: to gather together writers, artists and fans of Asian literature and art.
As of this issue, we have been dispatching postcards for nine years. Thank you for your patience in waiting for this one. And we promise, we are already working on the next postcards, and the next, and the next. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
/ Co-editor Cha
17 December 2016
1. The title of the editorial is taken from Leung Ping-kwan's "Postcards from Prague," translated into English by Leung and Gordon T. Osing.
2. Jennifer Feeley translated Xi Xi's "The Letter Writer" from Chinese to English.
3. In Sans Soleil, Hong Kong appears once: "I found my dogs pretty nervous tonight; they were playing with the sea as I had never seen them before. Listening to Radio Hong Kong later on I understood: today was the first day of the lunar new year, and for the first time in sixty years the sign of the dog met the sign of water."