Apr 21 2020

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong

pencil shavings

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong
Translated by Isabelle Li

Zheng Xiaoqiong’s short story “Plastics Factory” (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019) is a strange work of fiction I keep returning to and rereading. I don’t “get” some of it; but all of it intrigues me.

There is, for example, a timelessness to this story. It was just as absorbing reading it before the pandemic as it has been during it. Or it could be read in the 1950s or the 2050s, before or after a great economic war, and still make sense.

Much like the ancient Psalms (such as 61), throughout “Plastics Factory” there is a voice that sometimes cries out in desperation but expects no response. It’s not always a loud cry; sometimes just a murmuring chant, quiet as the waters of a clear, thin stream:

… plastic beads melting, disintegrating, flowing into moulds, solidifying, being pushed out by mechanical arms, picked by us, placed in basins, on shelves, into tubes, sent to the fourth floor, assembled by us, and packed, before being taken away by container trucks, year after year, one piece after another. We are the same, our youth melted and dissolved, flowing into every finished product, packed up and taken away.

There is also a kind of culturelessness to the story: it could be set anywhere Seoul, Minsk, or Mexico City—there is a placelessness to it and there’s something pure about that. Reading Xiaoqiong’s story doesn’t feel foreign or translated. It doesn’t feel strictly like a “Chinese” story. It feels familiar, as when the narrator remarks:

In this place, I can’t find any room to accommodate a quiet, imaginative heart. Labour has crowded out all imagination and any superfluous thoughts or dreams.

And:

I believe the taste of labour is sourness. In my mind, toiling is tiring, and tiredness is sour. ‘Sour-tired, sour-tired,’ my mother, who toiled the field, had often said. Such sour-tiredness wafts from the loaders, surrounding their bodies.

I have a sour tongue: that I as a reader am not getting the author’s full intentions. But it’s my fault, not hers. Alas, I’m an unfair reader who wants to be pleased and pampered. Signs of a struggle betray my weaknesses. But the sourness is sharp, acute, memorable. I want another taste.