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Chinese novel alleged to have stolen from Canada’s “literary elite”

The “Great Chinese Canadian Literary Feud” is now underway, according to a Toronto Star story by Bill Schiller. The author at the centre of the supposed controversy is Toronto’s Zhang Ling, whose previous novel, Aftershock, became a surprise bestseller in China when a film version was released there last summer.

For her latest novel, Gold Mountain Blues, Zhang is accused of stealing from a diverse group of Chinese-Canadian authors, including Denise Chong, Wayson Choy, Sky Lee, and Paul Yee. An English translation of the novel was due to appear with Penguin Canada by early 2012, but according to the Star, it has been put “in limbo until [Penguin] is satisfied that the author hasn’t been poaching from the works of Canada’s Chinese Canadian literary elite.”

It’s a damning accusation, but the case against Zhang is anything but cut and dried. The accusations of plagiarism appear to stem from an online smear campaign led by an anonymous blogger known as Changjiang. When the Star tracked down and questioned the man supposedly behind the posts, one Robert Luo, he “grew alarmed and then hung up.” Another of Zhang’s attackers, Cheng Xingbang, also refused an interview.

Meanwhile, Penguin has not said it is delaying publication of Gold Mountain Blues, only that it is waiting for the English translation to be complete before making an internal decision about how to handle the accusations. And two of the supposed victims of plagiarism contacted by the Star “ Sky Lee and Denise Chong “ were equally in the dark, as neither reads Chinese. As the Star reports, Chong, who is also published by Penguin, is hesitant to weigh in on the controversy:

Changjiang’s website accuses Zhang of borrowing the key character of Chong’s [1994 memoir, The Concubine’s Children] “ her grandmother May-ying, the hard-drinking, smoking, gambling concubine of the title ” then fashioning it into a character in Gold Mountain Blues.

Chong says that without a translation she can’t really comment.

But she did send an email to alert her agent once the controversy hit the Chinese blogosphere.

Reached in Montreal, reclusive Canadian writer Sky Lee, author of the groundbreaking novel Disappearing Moon Café (1990), an instant classic, admits she was shocked and dismayed when she first heard from a friend in British Columbia that someone might be poaching her work.

But then she realized that she couldn’t really evaluate the allegations first-hand. She doesn’t read Chinese either.

So she farmed it out to her trusted friend, Jennifer Jay, a historian at the University of Alberta who is fluent in Chinese, who spent a day reading an online version of Gold Mountain Blues.

Jay was careful in a telephone interview, saying she was not an expert, noting she had had limited reading time and, while intimately familiar with Disappearing Moon Café, she had not read it for a while. But she said Gold Mountain Blues did make her feel alarm.

I’m not ready to say this author is a plagiarist, she says. At this point I’m saying it’s ˜problematic.’ 

At the same time, says Jay, she has a lot of sympathy for Zhang.

It must be a nightmare for the author to be going through this if she’s innocent, she says.