Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Q & A: Xu Xi

Xu Xi 許素細  is the author of ten books, most recently the novels That Man In Our Lives (C&R Press, September 2016) and Habit of a Foreign Sky (Haven Books, 2010), a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize; the story collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011).  Forthcoming books include Interruptions (Hong Kong University Museum & Art Gallery, September, 2016), a collaborative ekphrastic essay collection in conversation with photography by David Clarke; a memoir Elegy for HK (Penguin China/Australia, 2017) and Insignificance: Stories of Hong Kong (Signal 8 Press, 2018).  She has also edited four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English.  Since 2002, she has taught for low-residency MFA programs, including at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Montpelier where she was elected and served as faculty chair, and at City University of Hong Kong where she was appointed Writer-in-Residence and founded and directed Asia’s first low-residency MFA.  From January to May, 2016, she was Distinguished Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center of Creative Writing.  She is also co-founder, with author Robin Hemley, of Authors At Large, offering international writing retreats and workshops.  A Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong permanent resident and U.S. citizen, she currently lives between New York and Hong Kong.

That Man In Our Lives is billed by the publishers as “the transnational 21st century novel.” It concerns Gordon Ashberry, also known as Gordie, also known by his Chinese name Hui Guo, a wealthy American sinophile and unmarried womanizer who has never needed to work. When he turns 50, Gordie decides to give all his money away. A predatory Chinese authoress, Zhang Lian-he, also known as Minnie Chang, also known as Lullabelle, makes him the subject of a book published in America as Honey Money. This is a success, and the resulting publicity sends him into self-imposed exile. He disappears from Tokyo airport, en route from New York to Hong Kong. Naturally, this leaves everybody in his immediate circle bemused, upset, and keen to track him down. The novel is particularly concerned with the reactions of his two closest friends Harold Haight, and Larry Woo, and their families. See here for the review in Asian Review of Books.

What drove you to write That Man In Our Lives?
Gordie.  He wouldn’t shut up in my head so he eventually got his own book!  But there were a lot of questions that haunted me, most significantly, the shifting balance of power between China and the U.S. since the economic rise of China.  When I first heard John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, I was fascinated by this artistic expression of a major historical moment that was the beginning of that shift.  Nixon’s subsequent disgrace with Watergate was still a future moment when he went to China, and Adams’ artistic interpretation of that moment was profound.  Nixon & Kissinger meeting with Mao & Chou En-lai was such a defining point in my life, because everything I lived after that was colored by this political and historical reality.  Although I grew up in Hong Kong, after secondary school I’ve lived transnationally all of my adult life.  Most of the time I’ve bounced between Hong Kong and New York, both the city & in the northern part of the state (with a few detours to other places), and my life & work allowed me to see that shift in the balance of power in many ways - personal, professional and public.  Gordie was an American who studied Chinese in the late 60’s, at a time when such Americans went to Taiwan if they wanted to fully steep themselves in the Chinese language and culture.  Fast forward a couple of decades or so and that world has completely changed.  As a novelist, I’m interested in private, rather than public, lives, but am interested in how the changes wrought by globalization and the movements of world politics affect private lives.

What did you learn about writing while you were writing it?
That it’s always back to the drawing board with every new novel or story (or essay for that matter).  That you never really stop learning how to write, because each experience brings you something new.  But I think I learn that with every new piece I try to write.  With That Man In Our Lives, I discovered that it was time to write about characters who had lives that were quite different from mine.  Although I’d done that before in previous novels and stories, I tended to draw on much of what I already knew in terms of the worlds these characters came from.  This book was the greatest departure from what I knew into what I did not know but was fascinated by.  I also discovered that when you set out to learn about what you know nothing about, the world will give you answers.  For example, I knew Gordie’s family had this townhouse in Gramercy, but when I first imagined it in an earlier novel (Habit of a Foreign Sky), I based it on the office of an Italian designer I used to know many years earlier who did have his office on the ground floor of a townhouse in Gramercy.  But I hadn’t actually been in that office since the late 1980’s and no longer knew the designer.  So there I was, wandering around Gramercy in the early 2000’s sometime, looking for Gordie’s townhouse and there was this one corner building that faced the park - the front door was wide open and a contractor’s truck was parked outside.  He turned out to be Hungarian, the contractor that is, with whom I struck up a conversation, and he showed me the inside of this townhouse they were doing some renovation work for (it was the offices of a nonprofit of some kind) and I got to wander around inside, memorize it (didn’t have a cellphone to snap photos with back then), and could reproduce its floor plan and layout in my mind for Gordie’s reclusive life in the novel.  This happened to me so many times in the writing of this novel that I finally just accepted all this serendipity as fate and that I was meant to write this book.  If you look through the acknowledgements, there are a number of persons or texts mentioned there who were central to this serendipitous adventure (Christopher Phillips, James Salter’s novel The Hunters, Consuelo de St. Exupery’s memoir The Tale of the Rose, Tim Woo, Nigel Collett and the establishment of the Tongzhi Literary Group).

Who is your ideal reader, and why?
The ideal reader most likely reads English, but perhaps not if it’s one of the translated versions of my works.  I picture this individual, curled up with one of my books, somewhere as far away as possible from anything resembling my world, whose imagination is sparked by the world in my books.   It isn’t a reader I may necessarily ever meet, or a reader who cares much about who I am, but this reader is drawn to the world I’ve presented - all the people, places, dramas, lives, conflicts, loves.  A poet I knew taught one of my novels (Hong Kong Rose) to undergraduates at her small state college in North Carolina back in the late 90’s.  I visited her class, wondering what these (mostly) girls from small towns in the U.S. south would think of this novel, set in Hong Kong of the 70’s, about a Chinese woman whose upper middle class society marriage to a mixed-race lawyer (Chinese from South Africa father + English mother) goes south when she discovers her husband is gay.  Imagine my surprise when these 19 & 20 year old girls - most from working class backgrounds, most who would likely never go to Hong Kong (if they even had ever thought about Hong Kong at all) - told me they really liked and understood my novel because they all knew relationships like that, meaning, compromised ones.  So perhaps it’s appropriate, fast forwarding almost 20 years later, that my latest novel, That Man in Our Lives, is published by a literary press in North Carolina.

Do you think readers in the East will take different things from it than will readers in the West? If you do: what things, and why?
Possibly, unless it’s a reader who has a similarly transnational background as the characters in the novel.  For such a reader, it wouldn’t matter whether they were in Hong Kong or New York.  I can’t be sure about reception, because the novel hasn’t been released in the U.S. yet, but from the early interviews/readers/pre-release launches, I suspect that American readers (and perhaps British ones as well - because I did read from the book at the Oxford Literary Festival) might respond to the racial and marginalization issues raised in the novel, particularly the question of who is or isn’t marginalized because of race (or gender or class). New York, in particular, is used to a diverse society, and the questions around race, especially, are part of social, cultural and political discourse.  Hong Kong is much less open to questions of race, as it is not a racially diverse society, being 95% Cantonese, so there is less understanding of what all that means (as well as, I sometimes think, a denial of the existence of racism here).  Also, I would expect Hong Kong readers to be more engaged with the Hong Kong aspects of the story, and less interested in the U.S. one - I may be wrong about this but I’ve sometimes found readers in Asia have something of a bias about literature set in the West that involves Asians, and lump all that into “Asian-American,” and think of it as “inauthentic.”  Even though Hong Kong is a very globalized society, its attitudes sometimes strike me as more parochial and insular than in New York, at least in terms of literary tastes and expectations.

A 21st-century novel has to be more than just a story of some made-up life.  Agree or disagree?
Agree, probably, although not necessarily.  There’s still a lot of run-of-the-mill made up life novels out there that are immensely popular, because the biggest readership market is for romance, followed by other genre fiction such as scifi-fantasy, thrillers, horror, mysteries.  Genre fiction has its own shape of storytelling and it’s the escapism that’s most compelling to readers in any century.  But alas, I’ve never been able to write genre (I’ve tried and failed and hence cannot count on royalties to make me rich, unlike my genre fiction writer friends), so I’m stuck with considering the question of what a 21st century novel might be, ought to be, could be.  The increased importance of literary nonfiction in the 21st century is what seems to most affect the novel, I think.  The author, as always, is declared dead, but that’s not really the point.  What’s intriguing about literary nonfiction is a little like what’s intriguing about reality TV - we want a kind of structured reality but still want it to be “art” so it needs the trappings of various literary devices, such as poetic language (think the lyric essay, for example) or, say, the freedom to use fictional techniques (e.g. reproduced dialogue in a memoir that no one could possibly remember unless it was recorded).  Which complicates things for the novelist.  I sometimes think that’s why the historical novel has become so enormously popular in the 21st century - we wish to reinvent history but also to reproduce history so that the story is not entirely made up.  Alas, I am not a historical novelist, as I’ve always written about contemporary life and will likely continue to do so.  So have I written a 21st century novel that’s more than just a story of some made-up life in That Man In Our Lives?  Well, if readers will join me in looking for Gordie, then maybe I have.

What is your relationship with X-woman, a character who guides some of the narrative, and whom readers may identify with you?
She’s very interesting, because sometime in the late 90’s, a friend called me X-woman and for a little while the name stuck around our circle of friends.  But like all names it came and went.  I had forgotten all about X-woman until she reared her head again into this novel.  She can’t possibly be me because she knows all these people in the book and has spent time with them at various moments of time when I was definitely otherwise engaged (for example she knows Stella Shih from a long while back and I certainly didn’t).  And I can’t claim to know all the characters in the novel she knows with the same shared experiences and intimacies - I’m just the author who made them up.  Also, she tells stories that simply aren’t true!  I know that because I wrote the story of Gordie and all these people in his life, and I know for a fact that she makes up stuff, constantly telling wild tales about these folks and they don’t always get to defend themselves.

You describe three minor characters as “upwardly global” What do you think it means to be upwardly global? Is X-woman upwardly global? Which, if any, of the novel’s main characters are upwardly global?
I think it means that the world opens up for you because of your particular brush with globality or globalism.  X-woman is more likely downwardly global, because she isn’t playing with Gordie anymore.  But in the novel, Violette Woo is upwardly global, as is Fung Suet-fa (to use her real name, though she doesn’t), John Haight, probably Laura Polk Silverstein now that she’s more or less shacking up with Harold, Stella Shih, and I like to think that Zhang Lian-he will eventually find her way to a more peaceful place that is both local (Beijing) and global (anywhere she wishes to go).  I feel the most for her in a way, because she desired that upward global mobility, glimpsed it for a moment, but then had it snatched away.  And yet, she so much wants to just be Chinese but can’t anymore because of her brush with globality.  She is my most conflicted and probably, the saddest character in the novel.  In writing her, I came to feel deeply for her plight, due in part to her lack of insight and stupidity despite her inherent intelligence and privileged access.

Why read (meta)fiction about globalization when we can read the newspapers?
Because the newspapers only tell us the news of the day but not why the news of the day matters or what it means for you.  Globalization affects us all, but in the end, it’s the personal impact that matters the most, not whether or not the U.S. and China are in yet another military standoff (unless, of course, you happen to be a sailor on board either a Chinese or American vessel in the South China Seas, caught in that standoff).  Meanwhile metafiction can teach us how the mind works, how we imagine the world into story, and why it should matter.  It’s not just metafiction that does that, all literature does, as metafiction is after all just one form of literary expression.

Why do so many of your characters have multiple names?
I think that’s because in the two places that are most like “home” for me, i.e. Hong Kong and New York, everyone has multiple names. Most Hong Kong Chinese friends I know never go by just one name - there’s the legal Chinese one and in some cases a legal English one as well, although for many, the English name is just something they’ve adopted.  And among the younger generation, the less outrageous examples include Milk or Apple or Prince.  In Chinese families, most everyone has a nickname, or is referred to by their birth order - as in 大家姊 which I am in my family.  This makes my brother, who is condemned to suffer three older sisters, refer to us as his big sister, his second older sister, and his just older than him sister.  My mother came from a family of eleven children, my father from one of three plus five half-siblings.  Numbers (or roles) are unique when you forget names (and by now, my mother who is in a pretty late stage of Alzheimer’s, remembers no one’s names, but she does sometimes recall that she had a “husband,” “sister,” “daughter” or “son”).  Plus the non-Chinese I know who live in Hong Kong often have Chinese names as well as their own name from whatever country they’re from.  In New York, because of the seriously diverse racial population, chances are pretty good these days that you’ll meet someone from some country or ethnic group you’ve never encountered before, you’ll ask their name and they’ll say something unpronounceable and add, but my friends all call me _____, which is either a short form of their elongated, tongue-twisting “foreign” name or some Anglo name like Dave or Britney.

What are you working on now?
Several books actually, as well as individual stories and essays, but principally on a new novel titled The Milton Man, which, I like to say, is all about fishing, something I know nothing about.  But I do have several new titles forthcoming in the next couple of years so there is still work to be done on two of those (one is finalized with the press already).  I also have an essay collection that is sort of finished called This Fish Is Fowl, but I may go back to tinker with it some more as I’ve only just given it to my agent to look at.

Follow Xu Xi on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @xuxiwriter.

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