Glass speaks with Xu Xi – the acclaimed author of Insignificance

FOR the last 20 years Xu Xi, the acclaimed author of both fiction and non-fiction, has been delving deeper into Hong Kong, its citizens, and its past, present and future. Her latest novel, Insignificance fits into this narrative of discovery, exploring the everyday lives of Hong Kong citizens and the way they adapt to the changing tide of politics in the city. Dealing primarily with questions of identity, Insignificance covers topics of race, class and tradition. Growing up with a transnational identity, and now living between Hong Kong and New York, has produced a unique perspective for Xu Xi – one that makes her both the observer and the participant. Influenced by her own experiences and family upbringing, Xu Xi’s prose is readable and easy to digest, often becoming conversational.

Consisting of 11 short stories, Insignificance gives a multidimensional outlook onto Hong Kong society, one that is quite tongue-in-cheek at points, and at others incredibly brutal and cold. Ranging from Longevity’s Eyebrow, where a celibate woman is seduced and abused by her close friend, to Canine News, the semi-autobiographical sardonic attack on Hong Kong and its disparity of wealth, to All About Skin, the closing story of the book, where characters can change their skin colour at their own will. We spoke to Xu Xi to find out more about her influences and to hear her opinion on the position of Hong Kong in 2018.

How did you get into writing?
I started really young, I just kind of wrote as a child. I started writing stories when I was seven or eight and I published my first essay, a description of the Hong Kong harbour at night, based in the Harbour when I was about 11, in the children’s section of the newspaper and then I published short stories. I literally have not stopped writing since then. That’s how I got started, but I didn’t become a writer more seriously until my early twenties.

Insignificance by Xu Xi

Why the title Insignificance?
It came from a short story title in an earlier collection, called History’s Fiction, and in it, I have a story called Insignificant Moments in the History of Hong Kong, it was a very short story, set over two days, the eve of the Handover and day after the Handover. The story showed two very different worlds of Hong Kong, one was very local; a guy whose uncle had a Chinese restaurant, and the other is a much more elite world, which takes place in one of the private clubs. There is an expatriate couple, a foreign mixed-race couple, a Western white woman and an Asian man and their children. It was kind of like how the two worlds of Hong Kong see The Handover.

Originally I was going to include that story in the collection but as we were developing it, my publisher was like, “y’know I don’t think we should have this story, but why don’t we call the book Insignificance anyway? It doesnt matter that that story isnt in there because the title stands on its own”. And I agreed with him, I think it was right because what got substituted in here was the story of transubstantiation of the ants, which was my other speculative handle of the story.

In the blurb, it speaks about your inspiration for the book is the 2014 umbrella movement and the elitist Hong Kong government’s tighter grip on society. What is it about that subject that motivates you?
It’s funny, I don’t know that the book itself so much rose out of that… well, some of the stories, especially at the beginning like Longevity, Eyebrow Off the Record, was set around that time and a lot of the stories in there speak to the time that was coming, which erupted in this 2014 Umbrella Movement. I remember I was in Hong Kong during that time running a creative writing programme at one of the universities, but as I was teaching, my own programme was simultaneously being closed by the university. So I was thinking a lot about all of it.

As somebody who has grown up in Hong Kong and has been watching the landscape for a long time, I always knew we would never be independent. It was classified as a democracy movement, and part of it was, but really it stemmed from a problem with the way the voting was handled by the new government. A lot of it actually erupted because the Chief Executive [Leung Chun-ying] simply wouldn’t come down and speak to the students. And that just struck me as, “why not? You’re one of us, so speak. You’re part of Hong Kong, why won’t you speak to these kids who are from Hong Kong?” It seemed like such a comedy of errors on one hand and on the other hand it kind of spoke to the sense of frustration and sense of helplessness that I think a lot of the younger people were feeling and trying to express because Hong Kong is their home. They’re not necessarily looking to move abroad or become astronaut people, that’s something that happened in an earlier era of Hong Kong, in the 1980s or so.

I’m somebody who actually is an American citizen, I left Hong Kong and I’ve been trying to leave Hong Kong all my life because I always felt that it was going to be China.  I don’t believe in the Communist government as a way of governing the people, and Hong Kong had always had this odd kind of independence that wasn’t really independent. We’re such a strange political entity, there are very few places in the world like us, the closest place like us is Gibraltar or those little islands, they’re all these odd spaces, they all have these identities of their own in a way, and Hong Kong is searching for that and doesn’t really have one but also is very clearly Chinese – that’s the problem.

The author-academic Xu Xi. Photograph: Paul Hilton

You touch upon quite important subjects, from sexual harassment to the umbrella movement, but then you choose not to explain or dissect them. Was there a reason for doing this?
I think it’s because of the way that I write short fiction – I’m an odd short fiction writer, I’m really more of a novelist. Each one of those stories could easily become a novel actually, and there’s a danger that you pack too much into a short story. I also don’t write your classic Western short story, where there are a conflict resolution and a kind of catharsis at the end.

I don’t really believe in catharsis in what I’m seeing in Hong Kong, so why should I write it that way? Some people have said my stories are more like vignettes, and I think that’s possibly true. They’re probably more like slices of life than they are like your classic Western short story. But a lot of Asian storytelling is more like this… Although I’m actually schooled in Western literature where you’re not supposed to write short stories like this. But when the situation you’re looking at defies an easy resolution, why should you make a resolution there? Why should you not simply tell the story the way it is, without resolution?

We’re unlikely to have resolution readily – although the political solution is there; we are a part of China, we are a special administrative region. If China has its way, at least at the present moment, we will remain a special administrative region. There are all kinds of political solutions that China could choose to impose and it’s not what the people of Hong Kong feel or want necessarily.

But how are they going to fight it? Are they going to start a revolution? I kind of doubt it. That’s the thing that struck me about the difference between us and for example, India or Singapore or Malaysia. First of all, we have no military, we do not have a culture of revolution or guerrilla warfare, we’re not North Vietnam. We’re instead a very modern, wealthy, kind of coddled culture. We know how to shop, we know how to live a fanciful life.

A lot of Chinese writing from Hong Kong is very surreal and absurdist and sort of a magic realist, because it doesn’t want to speak to social realism. I’m a social realist writer, although I use a lot of speculative fiction in this book, which is the first time I’ve done that. But most of my stories, especially the first part of the book, had to be a more social realist, except for Canine News, which is clearly satire. The others are a much more social realist, a kind of traditional storytelling.

Inherent racism in Hong Kong and an obsession with skin and genetics is referred to quite often, does this mirror your own experience growing up in Hong Kong with a transnational background? Or is it a broader point you are exploring?

It does mirror my own background, my skin was sometimes quite dark in the summer. And of course, my parents being foreign – we had a slightly foreign upbringing and I realised very early on, that being dark-skinned was… I mean my own mother used to complain about our skin getting too dark. My parents were both overseas Chinese in South-East Asia. My father though, is more mixed-race, he has more Indonesian blood, my mother’s family does not, so she was very fair-skinned and she didn’t like us to be dark.

So the inherent racism I saw started in my own family. But in the larger world, it was very obvious in the Cantonese world, because Hong Kong is about 95 per cent Cantonese, and the rest of us, well, I’m Fujian rather than Hokkien, as most of the South-East Asians are, and although I spoke Cantonese, and I really didn’t know the distinction when I was a kid, you felt there was a difference between yourself and the others. It’s a very insular culture. That’s why most of the English who came to Hong Kong never learned Cantonese because nobody would speak it to them. These days everybody learns Mandarin, but back in colonial times, the only Westerners who spoke Cantonese were maybe a few missionaries or some of the police inspectors. There was a very little crossover between Britain and China.

So the Chinese culture that dominated was the Cantonese one. Xenophobic is a better word rather than race because it’s not always about race. It can be Chinese to Chinese, or Chinese to other Asians, it’s not just to Westerners, it’s not just to Indians. And I lived in a place where there was a large Indian population, and the kind of derogatory words used against Indians and South Asians was really horrible and I grew up listening to this all my life. That’s current… that’s happening today.

What do you want your readers to learn when reading Insignificance?
We’re not just a great place for James Bond films to be made, or that we’re this great tourist destination with food and fashion. All that is true, but I want to highlight through these private lives and stories the people who really are part of Hong Kong, in all their oddity. Most of my characters tend to be people who are a little bit more on the margins, rather than the mainstream. So by using a provocative title like Insignificance, as if we are this insignificant little place, I want to make us significant, I suppose that’s what I’m doing.

At such a turbulent time for Hong Kong, China and America, in your opinion, what does the future hold for Hong Kong?
I think it actually has a good economic future, because right now, Carrie Lam, the current CEO, is somebody who knows how to be governed by China and how to govern Hong Kong for China. I do think that Hong Kong’s well-being depends on its ability to be a part of China in a way that allows it to still have some of its distinction as a special administrative region, as well as be able to interact with the larger China as it is today. Otherwise, it can only be chaotic, because the alternative is revolution and bloodshed.

And I think, unlike the Chinese people on the mainland who understand revolution, Hong Kong has no history of revolution. There were riots in the sixties, there was an earlier situation in the late nineties, but none of these turned into political movements. And even now, the Hong Kong government has already banned the independence movement. Now the question is whether Facebook should take down its page. Imagine that, it’s like saying, “your voice is shut off.”

China is a huge country, with a huge population. The average person doesn’t really care what the government is saying or doing, as long as their own lives are okay. And this is where literature is wonderful, literature is about those ordinary lives, writers look at what people do, what is happening in the world today, and there is a lot that is happening in China that is very very positive, it’s culturally exciting.

Certainly, for entrepreneurs, there’s a great opportunity. Certainly, for scientists, there’s maybe better opportunity than in the US – where we’re stripping away so much from our educational institutions. China is putting money into research and development, into infrastructure – for example, the high-speed rail (which I gather the first day was not the best, but you know there are always teething problems). China is trying to build the kind of infrastructure that once upon a time America the superpower did.

So Hong Kong’s future could actually be very promising. It’s definitely not going to become broke overnight, it’s got these huge financial underpinnings. There are many technical issues you could discuss, such as the peg with the US dollar – should that remain?

There are many debates but the universities and schools now provide lots of opportunities for young people to find opportunity inside China. But if there’s resistance to embracing China, they’re not going to have that. It’s a tough balance. The other possibility for those who really want to fight physically is to create a political party in exile – a voice that will be respected, or go to maybe Britain or Canada and form a government in exile. This is why the Dalai Lama stayed so relevant in the world – because he went into exile. Going into exile is not ideal but in a situation like this, that is your alternative. I don’t know any of these young people who are part of this political movement, but if I had to give them advice, I’d say, “go into exile, find a government that will embrace your exile. Sweden maybe, or Switzerland!”

by Lily Rimmer

Insignificance is available to buy now here.

Visit her website to view more of her work.

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