Interview: Xu Xi
Xu Xi – an Indonesian-Chinese born and raised in Hong Kong who went on to university in the US – is one of Hong Kong’s leading writers. Her transnational background gives her insights into the impact that shifting geopolitics and intertwining cultures have on individual lives. She has both written and edited compilations of short stories and essays, many set in Hong Kong. Between 2010 and 2016, she was writer-in-residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English, where she founded and directed their low-residency MFA creative writing programme.
Her fifth novel, That Man in Our Lives, was released in June 2016. The story is centred around a character – Gordon Ashberry – who appears in three earlier novels, Hong Kong Rose (1997), The Unwalled City (2001) and Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Her writing has been widely acclaimed, described as ‘beautifully refined in both intelligence and prose’ by Robert Olen Butler, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Asia Literary Review recently spoke to the author about the themes in the book and her views on Hong Kong, China and the changing balance of power between East and West.
Your new novel was originally inspired by the opera Nixon in China. What is it about that work, or that event in 1972, that motivated you? What relevance do you think it has to the current political environment between China and the US?
When Nixon met Mao, it was a bit like when Harry met Sally – the beginning of a long relationship that would prove to be fraught with tension and arguments, but also involved cooperation, mutually beneficial trades and cultural, artistic and personal interaction. It was also the beginning of a challenge to US supremacy as the world’s superpower, because China’s subsequent economic rise proved so startling and fast, much faster than the world expected. When I first heard Nixon in China, something exploded in my head. Art has always interpreted history in unexpected ways, but here was one that was close to my heart. I was a college student in the US in 1972 and was fascinated by Nixon – both his paranoia and passions – and later, was living and working in Hong Kong when the US formally recognised China in 1979. Adams’ opera, which premiered in October 1987, placed history into the context of our global cultural life. The opera also happened to come out in the month I pledged allegiance in New York and became a US citizen and a couple of years before Tiananmen happened. Today, the US and China are on more of an equal footing economically, and the political balance of power is changing the way we think about our future world. For me as a novelist, this history as art and the evolution of the balance of power is riveting, especially in relation to long-term personal friendships and relationships, which is in large measure what That Man in Our Lives addresses. On an artistic level, the novel’s tropes are gender, love, romance, sex, power, marriage, family – everything a novelist needs to observe the world at an intimate level. What happens in the larger world – politically, economically, culturally – is simply an extrapolation of private lives, writ large, warts and all.
Describe your character Gordon Ashberry, the ‘man’ in the book’s title. Who or what was the inspiration for him?
No ‘Gordon’ or ‘Gordie’ exists in my life as a single person, although he is drawn from a number of men I’ve known, both real and fictional, from a variety of places and cultures. He first appeared in my 1997 novel Hong Kong Rose as a boy whose father brings him to Hong Kong. He falls in love with all things Chinese. I invented a back story and life for him, although he was a minor – albeit important – character. He’s a failed entrepreneur on Wall Street with a somewhat questionable or shady side, as well as a romantic wise guy. He then re-inserted himself into my next novel published in 2001, The Unwalled City, set during the years prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China. Again, he was a minor character, though more about Gordie’s character and life emerged. Gordie had a much larger part to play in my 2010 novel Habit of a Foreign Sky. Now he has his own book, mostly to finally shut him up and to write him out of my over-active imagination. Some of the inspiration for him is jazz, the music I (and Gordie) love. But if I had to trace Gordie back to his ‘original sin’ source, as it were, it would be my fascination as a child with Bugs Bunny. I loved Bugs – the way he spoke, his wise-guy personality, his nonchalance as everything explodes around him, his irritation at all disturbances to his equilibrium. He is the nemesis for a host of characters, especially Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck. Bugs’ accent is Bronx-Brooklyn – a more literate Archie Bunker – which is of course not Gordie’s natural accent (he’s from a wealthy, patrician East Coast family in Connecticut) but it is one he delights in imitating. One of the more profoundly memorable moments of my adult life was to arrive in New York in 1986 and hear people (including colleagues who were former NYPD colleagues) who actually spoke like Bugs. This was when he transformed from a cartoon character to his origins in real life, and it proved one of my conduits into understanding American culture. So Looney Tunes, and Bugs in particular, were the earliest inspiration for the man in my life that became Gordon Ashberry.
What are the core themes in your story and in your work?
The core themes in my work have evolved over my ten books and other published stories and essays. Among the central concerns in my writing are the Chinese diaspora family, feminism and the Asian woman, America’s influence on global culture, the politics of sex, and being Chinese in the world today. I’ve always been interested in politics, and after an eighteen-year former career as a marketing professional for multinationals and other businesses, I am concerned by the impact of capitalism on culture, society and individual lives.
In That Man In Our Lives, the idea of the balance of power in the larger world is examined through that more intimate power balance amongst friends, lovers, spouses, acquaintances. This novel took me a very long time to complete – a little over nine years, actually – because I found myself revising, complicating and expanding the fictional universe where Gordie hung out. My MFA advisor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Hungarian novelist Tamas Aczel, told me that my early attempts at novels needed more complications. I’ve heeded that advice over the years, never settling for the predictable or the easily explained or just the mechanics of a clever plot. The world deserves better than that from its novelists.
Why is ‘transnationalism’ such a major element in your novels? Is it simply because it mirrors your own life, or is there a broader point you are exploring?
My writing does of course mirror my own life, but my interest in transnationalism goes far beyond my personal experience. Many of the transnational lives I write about are quite different from my own, some significantly more privileged in terms of wealth, opportunities, intelligence and talent. Partly it’s to invent what I perhaps wished I had, but more importantly, I am extremely interested in the imbalance of wealth and opportunity in the world. Growing up in Hong Kong, and having lived and worked there, I am very aware of the huge divide between those privileged to be ‘transnational’ versus those who are ‘local’ because that is the only choice that life presents them. Modern urban reality is extremely stratified by class, even in the presumed democracy of the US.
In Hong Kong, there are also many small traders of daily goods who transit through Chungking Mansions, many from African nations, as well as the sex trade – primarily Thai, Filipino, Mainland Chinese – or the Filipino, Indonesian and South Asian domestic helpers. In other words, there are many from third-world nations who can profit from the disparity of income with the first world. I’ve written about Filipino domestic helpers and their lives in some of my work, just as I’ve written about the intersection of local lives with transnational ones. It can be very easy, as a writer in English who is also read by third-culture kids in Hong Kong and Asia, to forget that not everyone gets to learn Mandarin or English well enough. Many, many are left behind because of globalisation. The current US presidential election, as well as the rise of right-wing political parties in Europe, offer evidence of this divide.
What is your view of Hong Kong as a place for creative writers, given the sudden shutdown of the City University MFA program? What concerns do you have for Hong Kong?
My concerns for Hong Kong have less to do with whether or not creative writers can write here (writers can write anywhere they wish, Hong Kong included, and always will), but rather, whether or not Hong Kong will have a future that furthers the position it’s achieved as a major international city. Right now, I hear, Hong Kong is the top competitive city according to some study (I think it’s Swiss), beating out the US. As a city, we are consistently ranked with nation states for all kinds of international indices – competitiveness being one – but also happiness, stress level, liveability, etc. The city is right now experiencing what is arguably its most political moment ever – topping even the 1967 riots.
Years ago, I wrote a novel about Hong Kong called Proximity. In it, a local political party arises that wants independence for the city, calling itself The Free China Movement. No one would publish the novel back in the seventies; no one cared about the Handover then. Fast forward and guess what, here we are, a little later than I perhaps anticipated, but certainly not far off. The first version of my novel projected a future-shock moment when Hong Kong sank like Atlantis. Such a dystopian ending has been echoed in a video that went a little viral after the Umbrella Revolution and also in an indie film about Hong Kong (Ten Years). Reality is often even more bizarre and stranger than fiction. Am I hopeful for the city’s future? Right now, I really don’t know. Trepidation is the prevailing mood in the world, not just in Hong Kong, as many uncertainties and mass movements of people daunt us. Meanwhile noisy people shout nonsense into our airwaves and cyberspace.
Do you think that it’s possible for Hong Kong to maintain its own identity separate from the PRC, given the gradually strengthening hand of Beijing in the SAR’s affairs?
I think Beijing would actually like Hong Kong to maintain a somewhat separate identity from the PRC, as long as the economy is stable and society is not in a state of turmoil. My reading of the tea leaves (i.e. what the PRC officially says) suggests that they want us to read between the lines, because that way everyone can pretend that they did not mean X or Y if the wrong things come to pass, which is just so Chinese. The Chinese leadership has enough on its plate to worry about without having to waste either ‘too much saliva' or grey matter on tiny little Hong Kong, this ‘pimple on the backside of China’ as I once described the city. There are plenty of creams to get rid of zits, but right now, the zits won’t go away – they erupt and grow ever more explosively red. For me it comes down to the local Hong Kong government, and whether or not it can rise to assume the mantle of real local leadership, as opposed to shutting out the voices of the people. There are real social problems in Hong Kong that need to be addressed locally, and is it any wonder that political movements have risen up through frustrated people who feel they have no voice that the local government appears willing to hear? Never mind the PRC.