Xu Xi is a Hong Kong based English language writer. She is the regional editor of Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Post-colonial Literature (second edition, 2005) and the editor or co-editor of the following anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English: Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing (2008), City Stage: Hong Kong Playwriting in English (2005), and City Voices: Hong Kong Writing in English Prose & Poetry from 1945 to the present. Her work has also been anthologized internationally. Hong Kong magazines such as Muse run her writings from time to time and her fiction and essays have appeared recently in various literary journals such as the Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Four Quarters Magazine, Ninth Letter , Silk Road Review , Toad Suck Review, Writing & Pedagogy,Arts & Letters, Wasifiri, and Asia Literary Review.
Here she connects with Peril Politics Editor R D Wood as part of a WrICE initiative.
Could you speak a little bit about your influences and how you became a writer? What were the works that led you to where you are now?
Earliest literary influences in my mid to late twenties were Marguerite Duras, RK Narayan, Maxine Hong Kingston and Doris Lessing. Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James also proved extraordinarily important. Later Eileen Chang was somewhat significant. As a teenager I was obsessed with mystery and read all the Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries; later PD James and the Ellery Queen & Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines in my early twenties. I learned a lot about plot from reading mysteries but once I knew I wanted to be a writer for real (mid twenties), I could not longer read mysteries anymore.
When I was eight or nine I began to make weekly visits to the public library where I read in a completely untutored way – randomly, whatever struck me as intriguing and most important, worldly. I made my way through a complete series of folktales and myths from around the world, because someone gave me the Africa book as a present. My parents also supplied us with all the Enid Blyton series of books – Noddy and Toyland (now there was the global village), Famous Five, later the Mallory Towers & St. Clare’s boarding school stories, as well as gorgeously illustrated picture books with the stories of the ballet, operas, fairy tales (Anderson, Grimm) and all the classics illustrated fairy tales and literature comic books. The latter was my introduction to serious literature in an abridged, “graphic novel” form before I began reading literature for real.
Beyond classics illustrated comic books were the DC comic books my sister and I purchased weekly – Batman and Superman in particular. Superman was my favorite alien, Batman my favorite vengeance hero and these comic books taught me everything I needed to know about world building, identity, plot, suspense, mysteries, secrets, character and back story, all the techniques fiction writers need to learn. And of course, cartoons and TV. Looney Tunes were my favorite, Bugs Bunny in particular. All the Westerns (Annie Oakley was irresistible), and the spies and spooks and crime busters – Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Man from U.N.C.L.E, Get Smart.
But what really made me a writer was insomnia and the need to tell myself the story of life as it could be, in contrast to life as it actually was.
As a child, I didn’t like Hong Kong. The city of my birth always struck me as too dirty, too noisy, too crowded, too culturally limited compared to the way I imagined the world. Yet it was where I grew up and the perch from which I had to imagine the world. I lived in Tsimshatsui from the time I was five, in a sort of penthouse flat on the 17th & 18th floors of what was then the tallest building in Kowloon. We had a panoramic view of the Hong Kong harbor. This was the 60’s, and at the height of the Vietnam War. Besides the ocean liners that sailed in with tourists from America or Europe, there were also the gray US battleships from which spilled the sailors bent on R&R in my neighborhood. The back streets were filled with bars and prostitutes, while the Peninsula Hotel sat grandly at the head of Nathan Road and the “golden mile” of tourism and shopping – custom tailoring (mostly Indian), Chinese silks, jewelry (jade especially), cameras. Tsimshatsui showed me the world and its possibilities.
The desire to escape what I considered the conservative and xenophobic Cantonese world that was my reality, a world that always seemed hostile to me, into the English language that was my and my family’s reality was what made me a writer. I used to lie awake into the night and “talk story” to myself in my head. There was a world beyond that was informed by everything I read and the streets of Tsimshatsui.
I was wondering if you could speak about your everyday context – you have a transnational sensibility yet are firmly located. What does it mean to exist in a globalised world in your experience and to be in Hong Kong now?
The past five years have been distinctly odd in that I have been sort of “stuck” once again in Hong Kong. I accepted my first ever full-time academic position at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) to start Asia’s first low-residency MFA in creative writing. So I’ve had to be in Hong Kong a lot more than I had been during the previous twenty or so years during which I lived a much more transnational life, as a corporate executive for multinationals/businesses in New York, Hong Kong & Singapore, and after 1998, as a full-time writer inhabiting the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong and the South Island of New Zealand. In part too, I took the job because my elderly mother has Alzheimer’s and this allowed me to live at home to help manage her care.
Hong Kong is of course an extraordinarily international city. In some ways, it is a microcosm of the world’s urban reality at its best and worst. But it is too crowded, too small, too money obsessed and too, too, too politically compromised. And it lacks the history of London or Paris, the curious insularity that is the globality of Tokyo, the entertainment mecca draw of Los Angeles, the cultural ego of New York, the technological & cultural assertiveness of Seoul, the uber modernity and nationalism of Shanghai or Beijing, the identity and future vision of Singapore. Its greatest (debatable) strength was rooted in its capitalistic, money-making culture which is now showing signs of wear & tear. Hong Kong may not survive the globalized future even though it appears to be a shining example of globalization. The political turmoil we’re currently experiencing may be the city’s undoing as its future reality is that of a Chinese city, firmly under Chinese sovereign rule with all that implies, and this is something the citizenry is only just beginning to fully grasp – Occupy Hong Kong was a protest that raised the city’s consciousness towards its true political reality.
You previously said that you had been stuck with one particular work for a long time. It came unstuck during your WrICE residency in Vietnam? Could you talk a bit about that work, that experience and what WrICE meant for you?
WrICE was an escape from Hong Kong’s claustrophobic reality. This particular work, a novel titled The Milton Man, has dogged me since the late 1980’s. I began it in New York, kept trying to write it over the years and then put it to sleep for a long while. I re-imagined it again in Hong Kong out of frustration at having to live in the city full time but it still didn’t work. I wrote everything else but this novel.
Then, WrICE took me out of myself in Vietnam. I traveled a great deal during the past five years, but almost all that was either conference/work travel with some travel home to New York to be with my de facto husband. The former is just work and the latter a reminder of how much I despaired at the distance from my real life. WrICE was the first magical trip I was able to take since coming back to live and work in Hong Kong. The immersion workshop experience was incredible, as was the freedom from feeling “stuck” in Hong Kong because the trip was longer than most conference trips and was simply a space to just be a writer and nothing else. I think the combination of both experiences unstuck the novel because a radical revision happened in Vietnam and now I know the book is on track at last.
There has been a lot written about MFAs in the past year – could you speak a little about your experience of MFAs and how you came to establish the first low residency program in Asia?
I was previously on the faculty (2002-2012) at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in writing, one of the oldest and prestigious low-residency programs in the U.S. I also served as faculty chair during the last three years of my tenure there. This was the experience I drew from (in addition to my own MFA at UMASS Amherst) to develop the low-residency MFA in Hong Kong. Creative writing at the MFA level doesn’t really exist outside the US in any real way (the Philippines is the only country with a significant history of such programs). Yet the number of literary festivals, especially in Asia, was growing, as was an interest in becoming a writer in English, regardless of one’s country of origin, culture or linguistic background. One reason I agreed to do this at CityU was that there was a Head of English hired there who had a vision for a prestigious and highly ranked department, and creative writing is one of the growth disciplines. So it was a good place to try to launch Asia’s first low-residency MFA. Our graduates have done very well internationally which speaks to the talent in Asia that just needed a space to allow them to become world-class writers.
How does Australian-Asian relations look from where you stand culturally, socially, politically?
Australia is the most interesting English language nation to observe from my perch in Asia, because it seems the most open to dealing with China in a way that is promising for the future. The UK has too much colonial baggage; the US is too competitive with China. Australia, however, seems poised just right. Australia already has made inroads into SE Asia on many fronts and is truly a “neighbor” geographically. And Australians travel and move around the world. Although there are troubling racist overtones from some of the country’s political leaders, the people themselves seem much more open minded than the leadership. The major disadvantage for Australia is simply the size of its population compared to Asia – a smart and well-conceived immigration policy would help. At least that’s how it looks to me.
For readers who are unfamiliar with your work, what is a good place to start? What is the work that you think best represents you?
Like many writers, I always think the book that has not yet been published is the best representation of my work! Otherwise, it’s my latest book Access. The trouble with the writer answering this question is that you can’t be entirely objective. At least I can’t. I don’t think any one book (or story or essay) truly represents me because my writing in total is the sum of what I am and have been as a writer. And what I am becoming as a writer is an ever evolving reality, which is always best exemplified by the latest work and work-in-progress. I believe in forward movement for the writer; there’s nothing worse than repeating yourself in book after book, which is the reason I stopped reading mysteries (and genre literature generally).