A Brief History of Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief by 飛蚊 FeiMan

by Xu Xi

In my piece, I borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, a classic speculative nonfiction travel narrative to develop a framework for various components of my satiric piece, all of which can be defined as speculative or imaginative nonfiction

Note:  The Cantonese romanization of the author’s name looks deceptively English but is pronounced FAY-MUN, to rhyme with bun, and is likely a pen name. It literally means “Flying Mosquito(es),” Hong Kong Cantonese slang for floaters, those annoying images that flit across your vision, unstoppably, as your eyes age.  The writer remains unknown. This found manuscript was on a park bench at Aberdeen Street, Hong Kong, on June 3, 2018.[1]  It was evening, so I left the envelope there overnight, thinking the writer would come back and collect it when he or she or they realized its loss.  But there it was the next morning, so I took it to publish it, hoping the writer would eventually claim the payment and rights.  Since its publication five years earlier, no one has come forward.  However it’s fair to conclude that the writer is a Hong Kong native, as a Mainland Chinese would have used simplifed characters飞蚊子 (Fei Wenzi) and added the dimunitive子at the end as the nomenclature for mosquito.  However, the writer might not be Chinese at all since the text is in English, and could be a Taiwanese or Singaporean, or even a white American masquerading as Asian as one poet did, thus resulting in the inclusion of his poem in Best American Poetry, Simon & Schuster, 2015.[2]
[1] Coincidentally, the date The Journal of Speculative Nonfiction was announced as a new publication, and submissions solicited by editors Robin Hemley & Leila Philip, where this piece now re-appears in the past, time being mutable in our world.
[2] You cannot make this stuff up so you might as well default to fact, and suspend disbelief.

2018 was the year that the journal Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief (hereinafter “DD&D”) ceased operations for good, probably because China had become rather too difficult to ignore about Diaoyu. But for the editors (hereinafter “Anox+1”), this duo would forever after think of their journal’s home base as Senkaku, because origins being what they are, mere nomenclature will never transform anyone’s worldview.

But my task is to write a brief history of the journal, rather than speculate on the reason for its demise.  As a contributor to DD&D[1] the quarterly (the exception was 2006 when one editor came down with typhoid, of all diseases, and they only published two issues of Vol 4), I know enough about its origins and evolution to do so.  Besides, I myself am from Feiyudao (Chinese)[2] or Tobiuo-Shima (Japanese),[3] aka Pinnacle Point Island of Diaoyu or Senkaku and so am a native daughter of these islands. There is some dispute as to whether or not my home island really belongs as some argue it is actually an exclave.  However that argument is specious, as most thinking persons understand that a floating island will, by its very nature, hover around the borders of the archipelago below, and occasionally will even float beyond those invisible boundaries out to the ocean. It’s rather like a child riding her rubber alligator in a swimming pool; you don’t expect her to stay in one place. To insist on pinpointing exact coordinates is as pointless as expecting the shouting of opposing facts to cease by those nations claiming ownership of these islands. 

However, here are other indisputable facts. Most historians agree that the manuscript “A Short Voyage to the Outer Limits of Japan”[4] by Lemuel Gulliver, unearthed from the caves at the easternmost tip of Feiyudao in 1746 by Chinese speleologists, offers sufficient evidence for our uniquely mongrel origins. Despite his short voyage, Lemuel impregnated a number of Japanese and mixed-race women; these “discomfort women” were forced on him by the Emperor and he was ordered to have sexual relations with them in lieu of his having to trample upon a crucifix, which he declined to do.[5]  The women and he were shackled and sent to Tobiuo-Shima as it was then known and which was mostly uninhabited, and trapped there until proof of their loss of virginity was provided to armed soldiers who accompanied them. It is a disturbing history, and the manuscript records Lemuel’s helplessness and distaste at having what he termed “unclean intercourse with these strange and terrified foreign girls,” because they were mostly “young girls, some barely past puberty, the oldest being no more than twenty years of age.”  The most shocking aspect of his experience was that these girls had all been willingly sacrificed by those wishing to please the Emperor, young virgins offered by families who were shunned because of the unclean intercourse of one of their own, Japanese women who had either been raped by Dutch or Chinese traders, or were prostitutes, and who had given birth to mixed-race children.  Other families with members who were known to be Christian also sacrificed their girls. In other words, the mongrel caste. This was, to him, even more shocking than the further assaults he witnessed by soldiers on these girls during their imprisonment, because “some of these young women developed affection for their captors who rewarded them with extra food or other comforts.” It is a fact that several of the soldiers returned to the island later and took up residence alongside the women and their offspring who were not allowed to leave. Lemuel stated that he never wanted to return to this island — the horror was too profoundly distressing a memory — and took no interest thereafter in the numerous progeny that resulted from his “journey of deficit, disquiet and disbelief.” This is of course how DD&D got its name.  It may also be the reason why he chose not to publish that book of his travels, and left it behind in the cave that was his dwelling during his month-long stay.  However, I digress and speculate as I really should not do in the writing of a history, especially given the editor’s instructions that I “stick to the facts for a change, if you can.”  (Note to self:  I don’t care for this editor’s sarcasm and may cease writing for him soon)

Yet this awful history does not appear particularly unusual when we regard the history of our world, does it?

DD&D was conceived as a travel journal that sought to publish pieces about cosmoplitan life in contemporary Asia “without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.”[6]  A little study might perhaps have made for a more successful launch issue. The by-now infamous line of the editorial manifesto in Vol 1, No 1 to “extoll the beauty and wonder of Senkaku with travel writing that will attract numerous tourists to its shores, especially from China” created, naturally, a controversial clang.  What were Anox+1 thinking? The year was 2003 and to call the islands “Senkaku” guaranteed the Chinese would take umbrage, which they did. In fact, there are those who believe that the launch issue of DD&D contributed to escalating the political dispute. I should note here that neither one of Anox+1 were Japanese (I say “were” because both editors died shortly after announcing the cessation of publication in what was possibly a seppuku suicide-murder. Anox+1 owned a collection of Samurai artifacts and a bloodied sword was at the scene next to their bowels. But such speculations are better left to the Hong Kong Police who found their bodies on Fei Zyu Dou[7] — the floating island that hovers regularly[8] over Lantau where Hong Kong’s international airport is located, much to the distress of Air Traffic Control — that much is fact, their deaths I mean).

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the journal continued to have a highly successful run for the next few years, attracting thousands of subscribers with their giveaway of a catty[9] of flying fish. They also paid their writers well, in any freely convertible currency of their choice. However, for one piece that was by an unknown writer[10] whom the editors wished to locate, they offered to pay “a modest fee for this contribution to our journal, in any currency except the Euro which may not last beyond this century.” I do wish to keep the facts as straight as possible. 

Several subscribers have confirmed that they did indeed receive their catty of flying fish which was, according to one enthusiastic gourmand, “awesomely delicious, flesh flaky enough when steamed to slice with chopsticks, I kept subscribing using each of my ten siblings’ names just to get more fish!” It was difficult to determine how Anox+1 were able to acquire such a lot of fish.  Eventually I located one Mr. Tseng, a Hong Kong taxi driver[11] and avid fisherman who confirmed that his many fishing trips with his brothers and buddies to Diaoyu (being Chinese he did not say Senkaku) always yielded an extraodinary catch.  It was “as if the fish were flying to be caught.”  What is historically less certain is how the journal obtained money to pay writers. Subscription was free so despite the huge number of readers there was no revenue, and Anox+1 were violently opposed to courting advertisers, insisting on editorial independence unsullied by commerce. This was possibly (forgive this final speculation) why the publisher finally terminated publication and fired the editors and all the staff.  I can confirm that for the two short book reviews and two travel pieces I contributed, I was paid a total of £55,000, which still startles me when I recall it today (or is this yesterday?). It is so rare to have your worth as a writer rewarded handsomely, and even rarer that not a single word is changed by copy editors, intern readers, editors, publishers, or even accidentally by designers and their perpetual typos. Instead, every grammatical lapse, punctuation error, syntactical malfeasance and literary illogic of your original text are preserved, which made it a wondrous publication to behold.

So that is a brief history of DD&D, warts, blemishes, beauty marks and all.

[1] See Vol 11, No 4 ; Vol 9, No 2 ; Vol 7, No 3.
[2] 飛魚島, literally, the Flying Fish Island as it is indeed somewhat fish-shaped.  Pomfret, not swordfish.
[3] トビウオ島
[4] It has never been determined why our British ancestor left his manuscript behind.  This unpublished book of the account of his travels would have helped readers better understand his third book about the voyage to the floating island of Laputa, Feiyudao’s sister territory, although we came into existence earlier.  The reason I use its Chinese rather than Japanese name is due to my lack of fluency in Japanese, even though I am of partial Japanese ancestry and have hardly any Chinese blood.  But China has taken such a hold of all us Feiyudaoists, that we cannot help acquiring at least a nodding acquaintance with their language, while Japan, alas, being the exonym that it is, has lesser claim in the 21st Century as a land where the sun originates.  This saddens me because I love traveling to Japan, probably even more than traveling around China.  My acquaintance with English is similar, as Britain, and subsequently the United States, have made such economic and linguistic conquests of our world that even Feiyudaoists all begin studying English at the ridiculously early age of two.  What has spurred us onwards to master English has been none other than Mr. Ma himself, the former English teacher and founder of Alibaba who now owns the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper, a testament to English becoming so global it is virtually Chinese.  Yet I am no more British than I am Chinese, although I obviously have English ancestry, but should really be conversant in Dutch, since even Lemuel G (as we refer to our ancestral Big Daddy) pretended to be Dutch when he visited Japan and was conversant in the language.
[5] In Book III of Guilliver’s Travels, the author wrote “fake news” on this point, evading any clear explanation of why the Emperor did not insist he trample a crucifix as other visitors had to during Japan’s 200-year isolationist, anti-Christian phase at that time, when only Chinese and Dutch nationals were permitted entry.
[6] The editorial manifesto cites this from Gulliver’s Travels Part III, Ch V “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan,” echoing the mission of the Advancers of Speculative Learning at the Academy on Laputa, where their famous invention sought to create, among other things, “an universal Language to be understood in all civilized Nations,” something the typhoid stricken member of Anox+1 greatly desired DD&D to achieve.
[7]肥豬島, transliteration Cantonese, literally fat pig island, although locally often referred to as Siu Yuk Dou燒肉島, meaning roast meat (or pig) island as a fat piglet is ideal for roasting to make this dish.
[8] Fei Zyu Dou only came into existence in 1998, the year after Hong Kong’s handover to China, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis.  Its origins are murky, as several journalists then reported that this was undoubtedly the initiative of a cabal of the city’s richest property owners and developers, all seeking an offshore haven for their wealth.  However, this remains unproven and was decried as “fake news” by the city’s second Chief Executive of China’s post-colonial rule, the man eventually imprisoned for graft and financial malfeasance, proving yet again that you can only make up some of the facts some of the time before they catch up to you.  What is fact is that there are no offshore banks on Fei Zyu Dou, although it is where Columbarium City is located, a development by Flying Wax Death Ltd. www.flyingwaxdeath.net; this Hong Kong Stock Exchange listed company has made huge profits selling expensive columbariums to the city’s population desperate to secure afterlife property for their loved ones in Hong Kong’s over-priced real estate market, even for the dead.  How the company secured any Building Authority’s approval for construction is another story as the island’s ownership is under dispute, claimed by the three cities of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou; China, curiously, has not had a dog (or pig) in this fight.
[9] Chinese unit of measure for food, a little over a pound.
[10] “Canine News” Vol 13 No 4, 2015, later republished in my book Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories, Signal 8 Press, 2018, which I considered a significant Hong Kong story for which I gave full credit to DD&D.  Some critics still accused me of plagiarism but that is definitely fake news, so rampant these days even literary expression has fallen under its spell.
[11] Tseng was born at sea into a family of boat people who were later reesettled on land, and never lost his love of fishing, often bringing home catch for dinner. 

The Senkaku-Diaoyu islands controversy is a serious political question for China and its neighboring countries that is an absurdist drama.  At the same time, it potentially can and does create unnecessary military maneouvres as countries posture over their real or imagined boundaries.  Imaginative speculation allows me to take this (or any other real-life political absurdity, of which there are many) and push the drama to its limits through satire.  In my piece, I borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, a classic speculative nonfiction travel narrative to develop a framework for various components of my satiric piece, all of which can be defined as speculative or imaginative nonfiction, including: a literary journal, history of the islands and its people, the missing story of Lemuel Gulliver in Japan as well as the very existence of the supposed writer of the piece Fei Man.  This allowed for multiple layers of satire around real world political realities beyond the drama of Senkaku-Diaouyu.  This evolved as a continuation of an earlier piece about the literary journal that informs the title.  It also afforded an opportunity to “write back” to the 18th century, and Swift, as all post -colonial -historical -national -reality writers from Asia should feel compelled to do.

XU XI 許素細 is author of thirteen books, including Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (Signal 8 Press, 2018) and a memoir  Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City (Penguin, 2017).  She is Faculty Co-Director of the International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, co-founder of Authors at Large and fiction editor at large for Tupelo Press in Massachusetts. Follow her @xuxiwriter on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.