I first met Xu Xi, who was on faculty, when I was a student earning my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low residency program. She was my mentor for my final semester there in 2005, and since then has become a lifelong mentor to me, in writing and in life. Always busy with writing, traveling and other projects, Xu Xi was still gracious to answer some questions about her work and writing life.
Xu Xi is the author of twelve books, including five novels, five collections of short fiction & essays and most recently a memoir DEAR HONG KONG: AN ELEGY TO A CITY, released July 1, 2017 by Penguin as part of its Hong Kong series for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. She is also editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. Two new books are forthcoming – a short fiction collection INSIGNIFICANCE (Signal 8 Press, 2018) and an essay collection THIS FISH IS FOWL (Nebraska Univ. Press, 2019-20).
A former Indonesian national, born and raised in Hong Kong, she eventually morphed into a U.S. citizen at the age of 33, having washed onto that distant shore across from Lady Liberty. These days, she splits time between New York and Hong Kong and mourns the loss of her beloved writing retreat in Seacliff, on the South Island of New Zealand, where she hovered, joyously, for seven years.
SLB: You have an extraordinary literary career that spans continents and genres. Your most recent and forthcoming work is being published with different presses in the U.S. and Hong Kong. Can you talk a little about the challenges and rewards of inhabiting the “multi-culti” transnational literary space?
XUXI: Probably the greatest challenge is not having a single literary home, by which I mean a clear cut literary tradition to which I belong. A writer like JK Rowling is clearly a UK author in the YA school story tradition (a modern-day Enid Blyton with wizards, although Blyton did have an odd wizard or two; she certainly wrote school stories). Likewise, Amy Tan is very much the Chinese-American storyteller who unpacks China for the West. I am, like the title of my forthcoming essay collection, neither fish nor fowl, which is why that is the book’s title. My own US-based corporation is named Mongrel International Inc. because I am a literary mongrel, neither Asian nor American and yet both; a Hong Kong writer who maybe isn’t a real one because I write in the wrong language for this city, the minority one English, and not Cantonese. Yes I can lay claim to a transnational literary milieu, but I’m hardly Graham Greene or even Lily Tuck who are expatriates, and come from the West to land somewhere and write about it (or as in Tuck’s case with Paraguay, to write a novel of that name without ever setting foot in the country, but still wins the Pulitzer); Greene, Tuck and others of their ilk get away with something I can’t. At least not yet. The next generation of writers like me can and will.
Consistency is the biggest challenge, because you really trip yourself up if you are consistent or try hard to be. Multi-culti & transnational means that there is no stability, no firm footing, no terra firma. However that means you’re always inventing and reinventing, trying to find the right articulation for what it is you think you’re trying to say. It also means that you can’t be complacent because the ground is always shifting if you’re paying attention. But the greatest advantage of spanning worlds is that I don’t need to pin myself down — others love to do that and I leave the pinning to them. Instead it allows me to sneak off when they’re not looking —exit stage left —and crop up somewhere else in a whole other guise.
SLB: You most recent novel, That Man in Our Lives, is sneakily innovative in its form, circling in time and through multiple characters’ points of view about their relationship to the enigmatic and charismatic Gordie, who disappears without a trace. Those who are familiar with your earlier work will recognize some of the characters and concerns from your earlier novels, but the novel also stands on its own. The unstable relationships in the novel, sometimes corrupt, complicated, but also passionate, might be said to mirror the changing relationship between China and the U.S. With its multiple points of view, interludes, asides, books within books, the novel’s “Chinese box” structure also mirrors these tensions. With its quotations and allusions, the novel also situates itself as a contemporary response to the opera “Nixon in China” and the Chinese classic Dreams of Red Chambers. Can you discuss how the novel’s structure and thematic concerns evolved?
XUXI: That is really a good question, about the evolution of both form and content, because the two were like a snake chasing its tail. It happened sort of the way I cook. I open the fridge, see what’s available, lay my hands on The Thing (carrot, aubergine, leftover chicken curry or lamb stew, the mushrooms before they die, kale, lettuce that should only be served in soup, whatever) and then grab the most inspiring spices or accompaniments that present themselves to my culinary consciousness and nine times out of ten I start chopping things up (I’m always chopping something up). But then I’ll realize I’m out of ginger and garlic won’t do so now I’ve got to look for something else. Rarely does anything I make end up the way it started out and it was certainly the case with this novel.
But the evolution, now that I’ve had time to step back from the book itself, was a lot more convoluted than it seemed at the time it was evolving. “Nixon in China” was at the forefront from the beginning — the rather obsessive rhythm and weird musicality; a libretto that was a tour de force in its historical transformation, making you rethink everything that went down when Nixon went to China, beyond what we know from history; the operatic form, how John Adams took a highly significant political and historical moment (and one that resonated personally for me) and transformed it into art. I knew from the beginning that what interested me was the shifting power balance between China and the U.S., so going back to that moment of Nixon in China was sort of like the Genesis of all that.
I was thinking about all these thing when I first set out to write a book that I thought was about the problem of being Gordie, but basically I wanted to tell the story of his life. The original working title of the novel was False Gods. But the more I wrote it, the more his life depressed me and the less I wanted to have that be the story. After all, he does disappear (I did know that much and quite early on wrote what eventually became the second opening of the novel, although at the time I thought it was the opening), so there clearly was some kind of existential crisis happening for him. But writing his back story simply made me despair at everything about who and what he was, and it just doesn’t work to be in constant despair over your protagonist.
So that made me rethink everything and the more I listened to “Nixon in China” — the musical “dance” between Nixon and Mao — and then I thought, that’s it, it’s what we don’t know about someone that makes a person interesting and then the novel somersaulted into itself and I broke up all the pieces and it became a book about what everyone thought they knew about Gordie but realized what they really didn’t know and perhaps how little attention they paid to what they really should know of someone who really was a man in their lives. The novel then became much more structurally complex (or convoluted) and soon I was in the worst architectural crisis. All this time I wasn’t even thinking Dreams of Red Chambers — although I think I was subconsciously because I one day wrote what eventually became the real opening of the book, and the novel suddenly shifted into a metafictional gear — I wrote that and then thought, really? Now what? And then the minor characters decided they want to have a say about this whole situation and one of the last pieces I wrote for the novel were all those “interludes” which, I felt, were needed to carry through the book within a book within a book of the first, metafictional opening. And then when I finally finished it, I thought, but of course, this is my nod to Dreams of Red Chambers. “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true / Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real” — the couplet from the doorway of illusion in the metafictional prologue of the novel. And that’s how it happened, more or less.
SLB: You were the director of the City University of Hong Kong’s low residency MFA from 2010 to 2016, when the university decided to shut it down. By many metrics, the program was successful, and as the only low residency MFA in Asia, it offered a diverse faculty and curriculum to students who were hungry for a more international creative and canonical space to write. The reasons for ending the program have been debated, most notably in Madeline Thien’s piece in The Guardian What lessons have you learned since that closure, and what opportunities do you see for writers hungry for a more international approach to writing?
XUXI: Well clearly, a university in Hong Kong is probably NOT the place to feed that hunger. The main lesson I personally learned was that I don’t ever want a full-time academic position ever again! Frankly, I didn’t want one to begin with but when City University originally approached me to do this, they said I had to come work full time for them. Prior to that, I had worked for ten years at Vermont College’s low-residency MFA as a prose faculty member and it was a terrific way to teach writing as a part-time academic. In fact for me, in order to write and teach in harmonious balance, I find that the ideal life.
When the program closed, I was approached by universities in the UK and US and even some elsewhere in Asia expressed interest. But I didn’t hear a peep from a single institution in Hong Kong. Probably the smartest thing I did, while trying to see if I could reinstate a comparable program through another degree granting institution somewhere in the world, was to start Authors at Large with Robin Hemley. From a purely therapeutic standpoint, it was a major relief not to have to deal with mindless university bureaucracy! (In retrospect, I realized it was peculiarly bad at City University — all bureaucracy is somewhat mindless, but there it was moronic as well). I wound up writing about that experience in my new memoir Dear Hong Kong and was able to do so once I found the right metaphor — Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane. So right now, Authors at Large is simply a private partnership where we dispense with all bureaucracy and try to bring together people who write, want to write, need time away in order to write.
But more significantly, I discovered that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to internationalize the teaching of creative writing. The pedagogy is still very American-centric, even though English language contemporary literature is no longer the province only of countries where English is the primary language. English is the global lingua franca now, and a surprising number of writers are emerging who write in English out of cultures that really have no English language literary tradition. In addition, we are a global world now culturally, and a “national” culture, like a national literature is less relevant than it once used to be. We need to figure out how to train the next generation of writers for this changing cultural reality.
SLB: The words transnational novel and the global novel are sometimes thrown around, not always positively (see for example The Dull New Global Novel in the New York Review of Books.) I know you speak often on this subject, most notably when you wrote a blog series for Ploughshares in 2012 call That Lit, Lit Life (with global characteristics). In 2017, what do you see is transnational writing’s role in contemporary fiction—in the U.S., Hong Kong, and elsewhere?
XUXI: Tim Parks actually makes a good point about the chasing of publishing fame in the English language that is flattening transnational fiction, not always in a good way because it chooses to simplify the complexity of what is local, specific and idiosyncratic about life. For example, I’ve taken to inserting Chinese characters into my writing instead of relying only on transliteration or translation (and argued, successfully, with editors worldwide for retention of those characters). It really isn’t necessary to translate everything and besides, given the importance of China today, the world might as well get used to looking at its language the way so many of us have all our lives.
Likewise I don’t see why I shouldn’t write about something in Hong Kong that would not be easy to understand if you weren’t from the city and didn’t speak Cantonese — since some 95% of the population here does speak Cantonese, if you want to write about a specific idea, practice, custom or attitude that is entirely local, that is its reality. So do it. I love Dung Kai-cheung’s fiction for its complexity and the fact that it’s not easy to translate — he’s a Hong Kong author who writes in Cantonese and some of his work is beautifully translated, most recently his book titled Cantonese Love Stories. These flash fictions are exceedingly quirky, inventive, and utterly delightful, but wouldn’t make for “easy reading” for a so-called “international” audience. But it’s good literature and that’s what matters and anyone who wants to read beyond merely the superficial can and will figure it out.
I prefer thinking that we’re trying to write the transnational rather than the global novel. The former speaks to the reality of how so many of us live now, transnationally as opposed to only within the societal, political, cultural, linguistic, religious and physical borders of ONE nation. Global doesn’t strike me as describing a state of being, which transnational does.
SLB: In my last post for this blog, I wrote about Francio Guadeloupe’s and Bruce Clarke’s discussion of the artist as inhabiting the “in-between.” Do you, as someone who travels widely and straddles two continents, believe your writing inhabits the “in-between?” Why or why not?
XUXI: There is a term that has become overwhelmingly, irritatingly popular among the literati, and that’s liminal. It is now so annoyingly overused — I hear it at writer’s conferences and read it in so-called critical work, especially when poets & writers describe their process and what they’re trying to do or the effect they’re after for their creative work or wish to pontificate on the state of existence—that it’s become almost a cliché. It is most often used in reference to being transitional or intermediate, or somehow inhabiting the in-between-ness of things. The problem is the word also derives from limen, the noun, referring to the point beyond when a sensation becomes much too faint to be experienced so that it therefore becomes minimal or insignificant. Yet when this term is used, I seldom get the feeling anyone is calling their process or work minimal or insignificant; if anything liminal is used almost as an honorific, a means of exalting whatever is so described. Notably, this is a term highly favored, at least in my experience, by those esoterically charged but highly conservative and the least progressive artist-writers who are so grounded in what is the canonical tradition that to pretend to be in between anything is almost laughable.
Yes I do inhabit this liminal in-between-ness of my transnational existence and here’s the truth of it. This state is a reality – both in my work and my life — that has minimal impact on what is still the English language literary tradition. Which is why the title of my next story collection of Hong Kong stories is titled Insignificance. You might as well call a spade a spade instead of swimming in the ethereal liminal-ness of it all. Sadly, I don’t find the American literary world at all ready to recognize true liminality — they’re too busy trying to define what they think it should be which is why the most successful “other” kind of literature is still, despite a shifting world culture, the “acceptable” narratives of otherness – slavery, immigrant, minority. The idea that, hello, true in-between-ness or liminality, is actually what is reshaping our world has yet to make a significant impact.
SLB: In 2016, That Man in Our Lives was published in the U.S. by C&R Press and your ekphrastic collection Interruptions was also published that year. In 2017, your memoir Dear Hong Kong was published by Penguin Hong Kong. In 2018, your short story collection Insignificance is forthcoming from Signal 8 Press in Hong Kong, and an essay collection, The Fish is Fowl, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2019. As a writer who writes successfully and prolifically in three genres, short fiction, nonfiction, and novels, can you talk about your process? What advice do you have for emerging writers here in the U.S.?
XUXI: Well it ain’t liminal!
My advice to any emerging writer in the U.S. (or elsewhere) is to read, read, read, read and then write, write, write and then figure out how you’re going to make that room of your own. It’s a life and a profession like any other, you have to figure out how and where you fit in it and how to afford the life before you get that million dollar contract — I’m still waiting, imagine?! (Are you an essayist who perhaps could also write feature articles about firefighting? Do you dream up suspenseful plots about flying cats in various states of evolution and could perhaps become a vet? Etc.) I used to read everything and anything in fiction until I figured out what I was trying to write and then I stopped reading what I wasn’t trying to write although if something grabbed my attention I’d still read it (which is how I discovered Clarice Lispector many, many, many years earlier when no one was reading her because I just couldn’t figure out what the hell she was doing at first – I’m still not sure I’ve entirely figured it out but she makes for good reading). If you write you must read. I am endlessly confounded by so-called would-be writers who tell me they don’t read? (This is only acceptable if it issues from the mouths of babes who don’t yet know what they don’t know and have no idea how idiotic they sound). My writing process, now that I’m in the process of becoming a Beatles song when I turn 64 next year, has always been about writing a hundred thousand words to find the right thousand, or even hundred, or ten. I don’t know any other way to write. And I imitate. Right now I am trying to revive the shaggy dog story (I greatly admire Mark Twain, one of the original shaggy dog storytellers) and have a work in progress titled Memories of You which I’m calling “shaggy fictions” (probably with Asian characteristics). The first of these, a piece called “2016 The Political Year” just made the most recent Glimmer Train Open Fiction Top 25 list, so I’m hoping editors will continue to like what I’m trying to do with that.
SLB: You have recently become fiction editor at Tupelo Press. Can you talk about what type of writing you see submitted, and what you’d like to see more of?
XUXI: Well it’s indeed a challenge. I’ve never been the fiction editor at a press before so this is quite an education, one that is proving to be enjoyable I’m glad to say.
Some of the most interesting work I’ve seen is historical fiction, which for me is quite revelatory as I’m not especially a fan of historical novels. But when they’re good, they’re really very good and make for compelling reading. I think because any historical novelist worth reading is probably one who has spent a lot of research time and is deeply steeped in that period for whatever reason. It’s made me realize how valuable research really can be in shaping the imagination.
There is a surprising gender imbalance. I’d say around 75% of the submission are from male writers — I mean good for the guys but where the hell are all those women, the ones I see in huge numbers at writers’ conferences, MFA residencies, festival audiences and the like, who are in fact often the majority gender? And Tupelo Press is hardly one that ignores female poets and writers, and in fact has published many. I’d love to see more work by women, absolutely, work that just comes over the transom, so that it isn’t only about my having to solicit work from good women writers I know, which I’ve done in the hopes of bringing exciting new voices to the press. I would love to discover exciting new work by women I’ve never met, those hundreds of thousands of scribblers out there. As much as I love Emily Dickinson, I do think it’s important for women to risk getting their work out there by submitting as opposed to waiting for immortality until they’re listening to a fly buzzing as they breathe their last. Here’s a situation where I’d say, it’s okay to be one of the “boys” or even outnumber them! What’s the worst that can happen? I reject your work? Who the hell am I anyway, just another subjective editor. So keep writing and submitting is all.