Interview with Xu Xi
Questions by Janice Weizman
Xu Xi (pronounced Shu-Si) was born in Hong Kong to Indonesian parents, grew up speaking Chinese and English, and currently makes her home base in New York. Xu Xi’s fiction and essays depict the lives of Hong Kong dwellers. As residents of a place fed by both Chinese and British culture, her characters are caught between worlds, striving for, and often achieving success, but unsure about where they most belong. In other words, as one reviewer put it, her work explains “the paradox that is Hong Kong“.
Xu Xi earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author of nine books of fiction & essays, and editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong literature in English. She is the recipient of the O. Henry prize story, the shortlist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Award for her novel Habit of a Foreign Sky, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares for best story, a NYFA fiction fellowship, the South China Morning Post story contest winner, and a finalist for both the Hudson Prize and Mary McCarthy short fiction prize for her collection Access 13.
In 2009, she was elected faculty chair at VCFA’s MFA in Writing, the first woman, ethnic minority and foreign-born U.S. national to hold the position. Xu Xi is the founder and director of Asia’s first, low-residency MFA program, based at The City University of Hong Kong,
For many years, Xu Xi “inhabited”the flight path that connects New York, Hong Kong and New Zealand, but, as she writes in her website, “she is now more or less squatting atop a Hong Kong rooftop for a spell, with dental benefits, amazingly, since a foolish consistency is not her idea of how to conduct a life.”
Janice Weizman interviewed Xu Xi via email.
Janice Weizman: You grew up in Hong Kong, carry an Indonesian passport, but have lived for long periods in New York. How has your multi-cultured life shaped you as a writer? As a reader? As a teacher?
Xu Xi: Living in New York was significant. It shaped me as a writer more than any other experience, and the city and state remain my home base, much more so than Hong Kong. I became an American citizen in 1987 by choice, mostly because I understood that the US in general, and New York in particular, was where I could really be a writer. Even though I’ve written a great deal about Hong Kong and its people (and probably always will), it has been the multi-cultural or rather, the transnational life experience that most fully shaped me as a writer, reader and teacher of creative writing. I’ve always been a writer and reader, but my reading was more fully shaped thanks to my BA in literature and MFA in creative writing, both of which I did at US institutions; my international travels throughout my life opened my eyes to world literature and heavily influenced my writing. However, my experience as a teacher of creative writing was entirely shaped by the US MFA experience, as I didn’t start teaching in MFAs till 2002, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency program—the low-residency approach is one I particularly admire and have tried to emulate internationally.
Hong Kong was my birthplace, was where I lived for the first 17 years of my life, and later as a working adult at different times. My early years convinced me that I could never be a writer if I remained in Hong Kong. My family was transnational, not being Cantonese and local, and I was writing in English, which was such a non-literary language in Hong Kong of my youth. In this last respect, Hong Kong has changed a little but not a whole lot. To write in English, I knew I needed to get away from the limitations of the city. Also, despite the city’s very international aspect, it is extremely stunted by its overly commercial history of development, with far too little attention paid to nurturing or respecting the arts and culture or even history for that matter. These days it is headed in a reactionary direction where it increasingly seems to discard its hybrid contemporary culture which resulted from its British colonial past; I find that very sad and revisionist, this desire to become “Chinese” as if all that means is to toe the party line. However, China is the sovereign ruler so that is the cultural overlay for the city now. But I am entirely a product of Hong Kong’s hybrid cultural history, and in New York, I can always be that kind of hybrid writer, whereas Hong Kong may not in the future offer much space for that.
JW: Your website says that “For eighteen years, the author had a parallel career in international marketing and management with various multinationals.” Can you tell us a little about this “migration” from the world of commerce to the world of writing?
XX: I never “migrated” per se from one world to another, as I’ve been a writer much longer than I’ve been in marketing and management. The latter was a professional career that happened for me out of college, and was something I enjoyed. But I had no illusions about it being my aspiration in life—beyond a certain point, it was just a job that paid the rent and allowed me to write. By the time my third book was published in 1997, I knew it was time to get off the corporate track—by then my public persona as a writer was much more real and I felt I had risen in corporate life as far as I wanted to go. After I left corporate life for good in early 1998, I delighted in simply living as a writer—I went to several writers’ residencies (something that is almost impossible to do with a full-time corporate job), traveled to places I’d always wanted to see but which were not part of my business travel and returned to live in New York City. I did a little freelance work to make money and also traded stocks and futures. It was wonderful. Eventually, I was invited to teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA, which was a part-time, very flexible life and that launched me on a second professional career that supported my writing.
JW: Your writing career has played out against the backdrop of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. How has this event influenced your writing?
XX: My third novel, The Unwalled City, published in 2001, was my “handover novel.” Back in the ‘70s, I wrote a first novel Proximity that was never published and that more or less predicted the changes the handover brought to Hong Kong. If you’re from Hong Kong, the return to China was always a reality—colonialism was a strange borrowed moment of history for the city—so this event, its precedence and consequences have influenced not just my writing but my entire life. For one thing, I knew that I was a “citizen” of a place that would never be a nation state, which felt constantly precarious. I never ever felt that I could “settle” in Hong Kong because it could never determine its own fate. I think one reason I chose to become a US citizen was that at least America was a country for which immigrants were a real part of its history, and I could see myself “belonging” to a nation of immigrants. Even as a child, I always felt that being a “Hong Kong belonger” was a rather false identity because it didn’t offer you any real rights, and your fate was always determined by a sovereign ruler who did not necessarily have your best interests in mind. All of this informed my writing, and continues to do so today—the lack of a sense of real identity, and more important, selfhood, is Hong Kong’s greatest Achilles’ heel and is a fascinating subject for contemplation for me as a writer.
JW: Your stories often deal with people who, like you, make their lives on more than one continent. In a complex world, their lives are particularly complex. When you write about them, how much do you assume readers know about their lifestyle?
XX: Readers figure out your fictional world, and the lifestyle of your characters, if you give them what they need to enter that world. When I write about the complex world I come from, I do so because I want to offer that complexity (especially in fiction) as my human reality. So I make no assumptions about what my readers should or should not know—mostly I just try to get at the truth of that world as best I can in my characters and setting and hope that my writing will speak to as wide a readership as possible.
JW: Reading your work, one gets the sense that Hong Kong is a place where people are constantly in transition. There is a sense of multi-lingual, cosmopolitan dynamism, where life never sits still. Can you tell us a little about the particular challenges of writing about this community?
XX: The biggest challenge of writing about the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual community of Hong Kong is to represent it for what it is—i.e., very Hong Kong but not necessarily accepted by a lot of Hong Kong. Most of Hong Kong is very Cantonese, insular and concerned with an insular local experience that is actually (in my opinion) rather xenophobic and closed to the outside world. Even though the city absorbs a great deal from the world, there is a strange unwillingness among its people to truly accept what is different—anything different has to be labeled as such, and treated with such unfamiliarity even if it’s very much a part of Hong Kong’s world. I’ve always found it curious how local culture tries so damned hard to deny its hybrid, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual side—I have local Chinese friends who are startled that I might know and enjoy a different Chinese cuisine (e.g. Chui Chow) if I am not of that group—this seems so peculiarly close-minded to me, and yet those same friends are quite cosmopolitan, well-traveled, conversant in other cultures and languages. There is something about Hong Kong culture that is extremely defensive, perhaps even rather cowardly, when it comes to real open-ness towards other peoples and cultures (this is very true in terms of local attitudes to our large Filipino and South Asian minorities)—there is rather horrifying racism in Hong Kong.
JW: Your writing has been praised for portraying the people who live and work in Hong Kong in an entirely authentic manner, as opposed to a stereotype. Do you feel that there is a lack of authentic English language writing about this community?
XX: It’s not so much a lack as there just isn’t very much English-language writing that comes from within. Most of the English language novels that feature Hong Kong have been written by outsiders who either travel through or come to live as expatriates here. This is changing slowly, as the world becomes more global and, for example, interracial marriages become more common, and as local and international peoples and cultures blend in real ways. Stereotyping happens mostly because the one being stereotyped is the “other” as opposed to one who is intimate and real, and therefore not someone that a writer can portray authentically. Also, the idea that English is a Hong Kong language (and I don’t just mean for government & commerce but for literary expression), is something that has to take root fully for its people for more English language literary works to emerge. I have to say that this might never really happen as the city is now becoming more Chinese. Although English is currently one of our official languages, this may not always be the case in the future.
JW: You are the founder and director of the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong. What led you to create this program?
XX: Essentially, I wanted to bring to life an MFA program for people like me, i.e., the hybrid, transnational ones from Asia who write in English. As much as my MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was a transformative experience personally, I recognize how ill-equipped the program was to truly nurture a writer like myself. Essentially it was a program for American writers, as are most MFAs in the US today. Likewise, UK MAs are geared for UK writers. But I believe there is a new breed of international writer for whom English just is the lingua franca now, and our writing doesn’t easily fit into “American” or “British” (or other English-language countries’) writing. It is transnational and the City University of Hong Kong program currently allows me to attract and nurture the most transnational kind of writer. It’s giving your writing “tribe” a space in the world. Secondarily, Hong Kong and Asia just are new markets for MFA’s in creative writing so it also seemed like an interesting challenge.
JW: Last spring you visited Israel as a guest of the Bar-Ilan literary conference. Did you see any similarities between Israel and Hong Kong?
XX: Certainly there are similarities—for me this was mostly the sense of displacement that Israel as a nation seems to exude. Because of its rather young history as a modern nation state (even though it is geographically the site of great historical events), Israel strikes me as a country where its people must constantly make a statement about the right of its existence. This is somewhat similar to Hong Kong which has less power to make a statement of its right to a form of semi-independent existence (or at least a unique one country two systems existence within China) because it is not a nation state. Israel must be defensive of what it has become, just as Hong Kong must be. But that defensiveness has a cultural-psychological price—you end up constantly wary and uncertain of your footing in the world.
JW: One of your latest projects has been the editing of an anthology of writing from Hong Kong entitled The Queen of Statue Square. Can you tell us about what you were looking for when you made your selections for the anthology?
XX: New voices in fiction. I’ve edited three previous anthologies of literary work of Hong Kong—the first two were more historical while the third was focused on newer voices. However, the dominant genre is always poetry. I really wanted to see what would happen if I could just focus on fiction.
JW: What is your vision for the future of the English writing in Hong Kong?
XX: Right now it’s pessimistic for a local future, although I see a fairly bright one for a kind of diaspora or exiled future of literary writing in English of Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong’s future is more Chinese, less international, but its colonial past has established enough of a diaspora that doesn’t want to entirely forget the more international-hybrid culture the city has fostered, and not just in Cantonese but also in English.