Sonata in K: A Novel * February 2017


ISBN 978-1-940400-08-2 | Fiction |  $14.00 | New York: Ellipsis Press
publication date: February 2017

available from Ellipsis PressSPD, and Amazon

Who is Kafka-san? Is he a digitally remastered hologram of the famous writer? No one is quite sure, least of all K, a Nisei woman hired to be Kafka-san’s interpreter and chauffeur through millennial Los Angeles. In resplendent, incandescent prose, Karen An-hwei Lee fashions this short, strange trip out of a mind meld between the Czech fabulist of bureaucracies and a sun-hammered late-empire sprawl.

Gratitude: For Eugene Lim, editor extraordinaire.

Don’t despair, not even over the fact that you don’t despair.
– Franz Kafka

We do not see things are they are.  We see them as we are.
The Talmud

You can live as if nothing is a miracle,
or you can live as if everything is a miracle.
Albert Einstein

Praise for Sonata in K

What writer doesn’t pledge allegiance to Kafka? That’s why it’s astonishing when a writer comes along and actually makes Franz new, as does Karen An-hwei Lee, through her effervescent playfulness, richness of imagination, musicality, her endlessly inventive polyglot sensibility. Lee resides intimately in the space between languages, geographies, and temporalities as she pays homage to the master, as well as homage to the act of writing, of translation, of reading. The verbal and the sensual are fused under her supple pen, and you will marvel at her capacity to animate words, releasing them from habit and predictability into buoyancy.
—Mary Caponegro, author of The Star Café and Tales from the Next Village

Karen An-hwei Lee has produced, in elegant prose and lyric epistle, a sensorium whose richness renders appetite absurd, a roux of epicurean sensations reduced, like words on a menu, to signs and vocables.  Hers is a world once removed, both familiar and exotic, like Kafka’s own fabulist universe, in which America is Amerika and Kafka is K (or perhaps not). In Lee’s elegant satiric thrust through the belly of a subtle, dangerous consumerism of language and personality, facsimiles pass for originals, time is no longer absolute, celebrity holograms have become more desirable than the individuals they represent, and Kafka is “Kafkaesque” – that is, a commodity.  I heed Lee’s voice for the alarm it sounds in advance of a catastrophe as real and troubling as the San Andreas Fault and hail it for the beauty and, sometimes, comedy of its cool engagement with a “dioxide-tainted universe of nanoparticles in a roaring aquarium of steel-tentacled, inglorious ambition.”  Lee has written a Waste Land for our time, whose symbolic epicenter is Los Angeles; her novella is, at once, a present dystopia and an uncanny invocation of Kafka, serving time in a penal colony where consumption and its proliferating glossaries have gone mad.
—Norman Lock, author of The History of Imagination and Love Among the Particles

In Karen An-hwei Lee’s sun-soaked fantasia “Sonata in K” (Ellipsis Press, 143 pages, $14) , Franz Kafka has been reanimated as a hologram by Hollywood producers who want him to advise on a film adaptation. Thus he finds himself visiting the boulevards and health food cafes of Los Angeles under the care of a Japanese-American interpreter and cicerone who calls him Kafka-san and herself goes by the Kafkaesque moniker K.  The film consultations go poorly, as Kafka-san is at a loss to understand why the script is about a rhinoceros. K suggests that the studio bigs may have confused him with Eugene Ionesco. Yet despite the manifold bizarreries of lotus-eating Los Angeles—“a metropolis of unheimlich sprawl into perpetual drought”—he finds the city restorative. Ms. Lee, a poet, encapsulates his reflections with exquisite delicacy and grace. Talk of used bookstores brings to mind “the toasted melancholy of aged paper.” A flock of birds pass overhead like “etudes of light.” Even the smog, coating the skyline “with a palimpsest of schmutz,” is worthy of eulogy.
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal 
A finely crafted intellectual novel packed with lush and decadent language….Sonata in K provides a banquet of elevated ideas and consciousness that should place it on many best of lists within the indie literary circuit. Through Sonata in K, Lee has given us a richly inventive text that will not only please fans of Kafka, but also the polyglot, the satirist, the poet, the stylist, and yes, the Angeleno foodie.
— Michael Browne, Angel City Review 
At once melodic and percussive language-play….The book… is light as air and as pure potential escapes all that would weigh it down.
— Alvin Lu, Your Impossible Voice
Lee enchants in Sonata in K, expertly drawing a fabulist portrait of Franz Kafka, who’s either been cloned from a bone fragment from exhumed remains or a corporealized hologram derived from photographic portraits. Kafka’s been summoned to Los Angeles—a “radiolucent subterranean garage”—to work on a screen adaptation of an alleged work of his, Lee deftly weaving together deadpan dialogue, poetry, recipes, bits of German and Japanese, and excerpts from Kafka’s letters, all playfully shedding new light on the famed absurdist’s doubts, quirks, phobias, and familial tensions.
— John Madera, Good Reads

sea * living * prayer * gratitude * light

What the Sea Earns 3

What the Sea Earns for a Living
Quaci Press 2014
published by Nicole Borello

Poetry Film based on the chapbook by Karen An-hwei Lee

“With a stunning and singular voice that gorgeously traverses the unique music of three languages—Spanish, English, and Nahuatl, What the Sea Earns for a Living is a buoyant book full of solitude and desire. These trembling and meticulous poems ask what secrets are tucked inside the shadows of orchards, and unveil what is carried on the Santa Ana winds. While it deftly walks the thin wire between the stark desert landscape and the vastness of the ocean, this book is ultimately ruled by a lush and vital voice that loves what is lost.”
~ Advance praise by Ada Limón, author of Sharks in the Rivers and Bright Dead Things

“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes
because we know sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”
~ Simone Weil, Waiting for God


Praise: Thanks to Nicole Borello for her intrepid editorial vision, Lorena Borello at the University of San Francisco, and Anna Borello for x-rayed flowers in her beautiful cover design.  Muchisimas gracias to these inspiring women and especially to Ada Limón for sisterhood.

anglophone literatures * asian diaspora


My book was selected for publication by the Cambria World Sinophone Series. Professor Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania) is Series Editor.

I express my gratitude to the editorial board:

•Ann Huss (Chinese University of Hong Kong)
•Xiaofei Kang (George Washington University)
•Jianmei Liu (University of Maryland)
•Haun Saussy (University of Chicago)
•Tansen Sen (Baruch College)
•Shu-mei Shih (UCLA)
•Jing Tsu (Yale University)
•David Der-wei Wang (Harvard University)

The Sinophone world refers to Sinitic-language cultures and communities born of colonial and postcolonial histories on the margins of geopolitical nation-states all across the world.

poetry * things

Interview for the Next Big Thing

Thanks to poet Anna Leahy, prize-winning author of Constituents of Matter, for the invitation!  Anna’s wonderful interview ~ astronauts included ~ is available here

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
A number of books are forthcoming from Tupelo, including a collection of poetry translations, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?
In girlhood, I knew about the Tang Dynasty male poet Li Bai or Li Po, whose famous poem on moonlight I memorized and recited.  I was new to a woman poet named Li.  As I mentioned in my translator’s preface for Circumference, Li Qingzhao’s poetry first caught my eye when I saw her last name and mine were the same:  

What genre does your book fall under?
Doubled Radiance is classical Chinese poetry translated into modern English.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What an extraordinary question for a collection of poetry translations ~ I love this.  Let us see, now…. I was awed by Yoon Jeong-hee’s performance in the award-winning film, Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-Dong.  I suppose Zhao Wei or Gong Li would play the young Li Qingzhao.  I would cast Yoon Jeong-hee for Li Qingzhao’s post-war years after the catastrophic fall of the northern capital. 

If the translator must take a role in this film, I would not play myself!  I am camera-shy and rather dislike having my photograph taken ~ acting on-screen, to this end, would be rather nightmarish.  A better thought ~ ask the poet-divas from Kundiman to consider any of the aforementioned roles on the silver screen.  As a matter of fact, I would favor active involvement by poets at all levels of acting, directing, and production.   

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Love, war, exile in the life of a Song Dynasty woman.   

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Translation is an arduous labor.  In other words, a long time ~ about one year, working weekly, to complete a draft, with a second year to fine-tune it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A labor of love.  I was inspired by Dorothy Disse’s digital archive, Other Women’s Voices, housing translations of women’s writing before 1700.  Moreover, a desire to highlight another Asian woman’s work in the world, daring to reach across space and time to circulate her poetry ~ I’ve also translated poems by the contemporary Taiwanese woman poet, Hsia Yü, for Poetry Magazine.   Currently, I am studying the writings of Bing Xin for another translation project.  My time is so fragmentary in this season, however.  This task will be in the future.

Poet-divas (except Ollie, sole mister div-o) I “tagged” in turn: 
Eileen Tabios
Ellen Doré Watson
Oliver de la Paz


Christina Pugh, the Consulting Editor of Poetry Magazine, “tagged” me this week, as well! Read Christina’s lovely interview on Daniel Bosch’s blog, and her new collection, Grains of the Voice, from Northwestern University Press / TriQuarterly Books.  Not only is Christina’s poetry erudite & gorgeous, the poet herself shines w/ a heart of gold!

flor * de * jazmín

In the month of May, after Baccalaureate festivities are over, when I walk between our little chapel and one of our academic departments, hundreds of star-jasmines blooming along the walkway are, in a word, intoxicating.


Peace: I am blessed to walk the long way around our little campus just to mingle with jasmine-soaked wind.  I think God is in the wind: the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: Healing for a man’s eyes,  a woman who awaits birth (sent me a sonogram), and a woman who waits for a miracle.