Tuesday, June 07, 2011

author talk: Xu Xi and Sybil Baker

In January, Daily s-Press featured Xu Xi's award-winning book Habit of a Foreign Sky. Through the mail exchange for the book, the idea for the next author talk developed: a conversation between Xu Xi and Sybil Baker, author of Talismans, a linked collection of stories.

The two know each other from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both are fiction writers who have a strong connection to Asia, Baker having lived in Korea for 12 years and Xu who is from Hong Kong originally and has split her life in recent years between Hong Kong and New York. The conversation ranges from themes like fiction generally, teaching creative writing, and the general state of things for writers today.


Sybil L. Baker (SLB): Do you make distinctions (and should your readers) between expatriate, transnational, and global literature? When writing your novels, do you have a particular audience in mind?

XU XI (XX): Even though I’m very aware by now that readers in Asia can and will read my books differently, I still try to forget about a specific audience when I write. In the end, I still believe that stories about what it means to human can and will matter if they’re written well enough. And being human today is increasingly transnational, expatriate, and global from West to East as much as from East to West.

SLB: I agree, and what’s interesting is that transnationalism affects people from all sides of the world who may never even travel beyond their town or village. World policies, a global economy with shifts in the winners and losers, as well as transnational companies affect culture and lifestyles in ways many people may not even be aware of.

XX: It’s a changing world, the 21st Century, and it is our job, as writers, to “record” that change through the stories we tell. I think that fiction is a way to create a world that parallels the real worlds we encounter, which includes the characters we create to people those fictional worlds.
SLB: How has the reception been for Habit of a Foreign Sky in Asia versus North America? Is that different from your earlier novels?

XX: Interestingly, the reception has been much more similar in these two spaces this time, which leads me to believe that the readership is changing -- i.e.: becoming more global like my characters -- and my writing is tapping into that liminal space where more and more readers and writers now reside.

 But I’m interested also in what’s happened to the responses to your work. Your first book The Life Plan was a kind of comic romp while Talismans is much darker and paints a very different portrait of the young American woman abroad. I love the contrast between the two but how have your readers responded?

SLB: It’s funny because my feeling is that people I know associated (either as writers or readers) with high-end literary fiction didn’t take The Life Plan that seriously. They saw it more as a chick lit novel. Once Talismans came out though, my sense was that those people liked it better because it was a more “literary” work.
On the other hand, some readers who are not part of academia I think found Talismans too dark for them, and preferred The Life Plan. Of course some have liked both, which is great.

XX: Elise, your protagonist in Talismans, carries her grandfather’s pea coat as a sort of security blanket cum symbol cum justification for her travels. Yet in the end she simply gives it away to her former Korean lover. What did that gifting/release mean to her?

SLB: In “That Girl,” a story in the middle of the collection, Elise leaves the coat with her lover as she says goodbye to him and Korea.

Talismans Post card  1 - Click images to enlarge
 At that point, I think she gives the coat away out of anger and sadness that the affair didn’t work out, but she’s still searching for many answers about her past. Five years later (in the final story,“Grape Island”), she writes him wanting the coat back. He returns the coat to her but by the end of the story she has given him the coat again, this time as symbol of closure for her—of her relationship with him as well as her father.

The pea coat provides several narrative turns in the collection. I think linked story collections like mine or novels do require narrative turns, sometimes linked to what’s happening in the world as well, and I’m curious about how you respond to that as a writer. For instance, the main character in Habit of Foreign Sky, Gail Szeto works in the international financial world soon after the Asian economic crisis and the British handover of Hong Kong. During that time the States was in a stronger economic short-term position, while Asian countries regrouped.

Now more than ten years later, we see America’s empire on the decline and Asia’s (and in particular China’s) star on the rise. Are you working on anything that is set in the context of these changing fortunes?

this HKG shophouse was the model
for protagonist Gail's home
XX: Interestingly enough the novel I’m working on now -- and hopefully am almost finished with -- is all about the changing world of America in relation to China’s rising position of power. At least, that’s the impetus behind the writing, although the story is about Gordie, Gail’s American half brother who was born to privilege in the U.S. but is finding that privilege isn’t how he wants to grow old. I think that America, which has had its economic and 1st world prosperity, is finding that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be if the “house of cards” can fall apart so easily with the sub prime mortgage crisis. Meanwhile, China is riding the headiest bubble where everything is about consumption and more consumption and designer labels and cars that choke their cities. Where does all this lead? I begin that investigation in my current novel in progress.

SLB: It’s interesting because I read in an interview that Chang Rae Lee is working on a novel that is set in the financial world of Asia and the West during the current recession. I’m looking forward to reading novels that might have a different perspective or more nuanced view of our world than someone writing only from the position of the West.

XX: What about you? What are you working on now?

SLB: I’ve just (I hope!) finished a novel that takes place mostly in Korea but also in suburban Washington, DC. It’s about two sisters (one an adopted Korean) and the secrets they discover about their family. The novel takes place in 2010 during the sinking of the Korean submarine, the Cheonan, and also in 1980 when their father is an enlisted GI in Korea during a time of major political upheaval. The way the East and West interact because of political or cultural change continues to interest me even now that I’ve moved back to the U.S.

In a Habit of a Foreign Sky, Gail, a Eurasian, straddles East and West culture. I know that you’ve mentioned you like to explore East and West as characters—how does Gail embody some of these complications? How do your other characters, for example Gordie, who is American but very familiar with Hong Kong culture, enable you to explore those tensions without being too didactic or polemic?

XX: Both Gail and Gordie are reluctant Americans in their own way -- Gail because she would prefer to deny the illegitimate side of her blood and Gordie because he loves his life all over Asia that has given him meaning. For instance, he and Gail’s mother have a sweet relationship in Hong Kong that he doesn’t have with his own parents, yet he wouldn’t be so privileged if he wasn’t the son of an American pilot who took him to Asia in the first place. Gail meanwhile, does extremely well in mainstream America -- she graduates from the right school, enters investment banking and is successful -- yet wants somehow to be more Chinese despite all that. Yet even she sends her son to an international American curriculum school, recognizing that is where the power is in her world. So both are in conflict with who they are, yet can’t entirely discard the American skins that fit uncomfortably.

SLB: And the flip side of that is, can an American (like Gordie) who is immersed in Asian culture and language ever “have” an Asian skin? On the other hand, I think a bit of alienation is good for us Americans—many of us take our position in the world and in society for granted and have never experienced being an outsider.

This NYC builiding was the model
for lead male character Xavier's apartment
Gail, Gordie, and other characters in Habit of a Foreign Sky appear in earlier works. Did you plan to continue to write about these characters? Without giving too much away, at the end of Habit of a Foreign Sky, Gail decides to move to New York. I’d love to see her managing her career and personal life there—will we see her again in any future work?

XX: As I mentioned earlier, Gordie reappears in an even bigger role in my next book. Gail is done, I think, although she might make minor appearances in future. A couple of other characters in Habit seem to want space -- one of Fa Loong’s “sisters” will, and possibly John Haight, the lawyer who discloses what he shouldn’t to Gail about her mother’s will. It is possible too that Kina, the storytelling daughter of Xavier, might grow up into a future story but I really don’t quite know yet.

SLB: In a recent Asian American Literature panel at AWP (Association of Writing Programs conference in DC), one of the commentators spoke about Asian Americans identifying more with affiliations and affinities instead of nationalities. It seems that Habit of A Foreign Sky takes that approach to the characters and their development. I was wondering if you could comment on that.


XX: I really believe that the world is moving towards a kind of post-national culture -- perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part -- but I do think that Facebook, Twitter, etc. means that we connect through affiliations and affinities rather than because of nationality. There was a time that whenever I traveled and met Chinese people, there would be a kind of ethnic or national bonding; I find this has decreased hugely with travel becoming cheaper and people getting to so many parts of the world. In 1980 when I spent almost a year in Greece, there were hardly any Chinese tourists there and I was a real oddity -- everyone thought I was Japanese -- and the Greek consulate in Hong Kong were so happy to issue me a visa because they had hardly any visitors. I daresay that has changed quite a bit now.

SLB: And yet, I worry that social media like Facebook (which I’m on) and Twitter, give people a false sense of connection. There’s no doubt that social media has opened up the world and allows connections that would be hard to establish or maintain even ten years ago. Yet, the nostalgic part of me wonders what will happen to good old conversation—staying up for hours and talking with friends over a few drinks. On the other hand, here in Tennessee, more and more of my students want to travel to Asia—to teach English there for a year or two, and that’s great. When I went to Korea in 1995, most people thought I was crazy. Now Asia seems to be more alluring.

XX: It’s nice, isn’t it, to be proved right as we get older? But I’m curious, after years of teaching ESL students in Korea, you’re now teaching young American writers in the South from where you originally hail. How has the experience of teaching abroad filtered into how you teach American writers now?

Talismans Post card 2 (a note on the cards, at the end)
 SLB: I learned many techniques and approaches from teaching composition in Korea that I’ve applied here in the States to all my classes. Certainly having to take a more formal approach to grammar and sentence structure with Korean students has been a surprising benefit here. My American writing students know so little about constructing sentences, and I feel that I can take them through that in a way I may not have if I hadn’t had to teach that in Korea. I also hope that my broad range of experiences traveling in Asia and living in Korea help other students think about ways they can realize their own potential as writers and readers.
But you’ve recently made a big change too at City University of Hong Kong, where you’ve started an Asian MFA writing program. What types of writers and students is the program aimed at, and what might they get from that program that they wouldn’t from an MFA from a North American university?

XX: We actually pay attention to what it means to write about, from, of, because of Asia, in English. While a North American MFA could readily teach someone to write an Asian story well, there will not necessarily be the focus, or expertise, at the program on Asian literature in English, what a perspective from Asia might do to a story, Asian languages (many of our faculty and students are conversant or fluent in Asian languages) and how that affects the way we articulate stories or poems of Asian cultures in English, etc. Our reading lists, even though these are individualized to each student given our low-residency curriculum, tend to have much more Asian writing in English that goes beyond Asian-American writing. In fact, you’re someone who is very conversant in Asian writing, and are a practitioner yourself of the “genre,” if we can call it that. But what also interests me is where you think contemporary fiction is headed in the 21st century of electronic reading (and writing)?

SLB: I think in terms of electronic reading, we’re going to see a larger difference between the haves and have nots, at least for a while. Fifteen years ago digital cameras were cumbersome, expensive, and of poor quality, but now digital cameras are tiny, cheap, and high quality—as a result, we assume that if you own a camera it must be digital. I think e-book readers will go the same way—it’s still early days. That said, most people in the world can’t afford a digital camera and those people also won’t be able to afford an e-book reader. Because of that, I hope that “real” books will still be readily available to those who don’t have e-book readers, or like me, like to mix and match. On the positive side, e-book readers are a great way to provide content globally, and in that sense, they are a vehicle for promoting and disseminating transnational literature. As for writing—I think we’d all better get used to signing Kindles!

XX: Now that’s an even greater challenge than writing our next books!


About the Talismans Post cards

The post cards were done by Sebastian Matthews, a poet and collage artist (and friend) of Sybil Baker. You can see more of his work at 3 by the Fire / Blog + 3 by the Fire / Tumblr.

Sybil Baker explains: "The photos are from my travels during the time period of Elise travels around Asia in Talismans (1995-2000). The quality of the photos are not great as they were taken on a regular camera and then scanned in--but I think that graininess adds to the post card look. The phrases are lines from the book that Sebastian chose. There were three postcards total.

The inlcuded Post card 1 includes photos from Myanmar (Burma) (reflecting the story "Ice Queen"), Korea (the men playing a traditional game) and the girl at the bakery ("That Girl" and "Grape Island"), and Cambodia ("Picturing Snakes")--the skulls are from the Killing Fields from the Genocide museum in Phenm Phenh.

Post card 2 has photos from Thailand ("Blue"), Vietnam ("Talismans"), Myanmar and Cambodia's Genocide Museum. Yes that's me with boys at the Sittwe Pier in Myanmar."



Sybil Baker is the author of Talismans (C&R Press) and Life Plan (Casperian Books). Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including upstreet and The Writer’s Chronicle. Recently she was named an emerging star in fiction by Anis Shivani of The Huffington Post. After living in South Korea for twelve years, she moved with her South African husband to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Assistant Director of the semi-annual Meacham Writers’ Workshops. See http://www.sybilbaker.com/ for more information.

Xu Xi is the author of eight books of fiction and essays. Her latest novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (Haven Books, 2010) was a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. A Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong, she has spent recent years inhabiting the flight path that connects New York, Hong Kong and the South Island of New Zealand. Last year, she helped establish the first MFA in Creative Writing (Masters of Fine Arts) that focuses on writing of Asia in English at City University of Hong Kong, where she is their Writer-in-Residence. Please visit http://www.xuxiwriter.com/ for more information.

photo Xu Xi: Paul Hilton



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