From Shining Pearl to Shining Sea
- By Xu Xi
A Transnational View of Hong Kong
Before I introduce our speaker this evening, I have a lot of thanks to give to those who supported and made this event possible. Thanks to Hampshire College Eqbal Ahmad Endowed Lecture Fund, the Ethics and Common Good Project, and the Creative Writing Program. Thanks to Smith College Office of Equity & Inclusion and the Lewis Global Studies Center. Thanks to the UMass MFA for Poets & Writers Program, Five Colleges, Inc., and The Massachusetts Review. Finally, thanks to my student, Judy Ha, for making the beautiful poster for this event and distributing it to all five campuses!
I’m very excited to welcome writer Xu Xi to Hampshire College and to welcome her back to the Five Colleges, where she got her MFA in the UMass Poets & Writers Program back in the 80s. So welcome and welcome back, Xu Xi!
I intentionally mention the 80s here because in so much of Xu Xi’s writing over the last four decades—including five novels, seven collections of short stories and essays, one memoir, and four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English—time is a character in her stories. It shapes people’s livelihoods, identities, and choices, particularly in the city of Hong Kong, another principal character in her books, and against the backdrop of China and its shifting power relations with the US and the West. Reading across Xu Xi’s work is like getting an intimate glimpse inside the everyday lifeworlds of Hong Kong people over the last half century. In her short story “Insignificant moments in the history of Hong Kong,” which takes place on the evening of June 30, 1997, different communities—locals and expats, Chinese and English and Eurasians, elders and youth—experience that moment of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. An “insignificant moment.”
Dates matter in Xu Xi’s work in the way that Milan Kundera wrote about the role of history in the novel: “Not only must historical circumstance create a new existential situation for a character in a novel, but history itself must be understood as an existential situation.” Whether in her novels, short stories, or essays, the narrators in Xu Xi’s writing are all grappling with the existential situation of being in Hong Kong—and, as I read Xu Xi’s work today, the existential question of what it means to be Chinese in this historical moment. These questions of being—being in Hong Kong, being Chinese, being a U.S. citizen, being a daughter, and being a feminist, among other things—are explored in Xu Xi’s recent book, This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being (Nebraska Press, American Lives series, 2019), her short story collection Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (Signal 8 Press, 2018), and her memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City (Penguin, July 2017), which was part of Penguin's Hong Kong series for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.
This afternoon, Xu Xi will share with us some excerpts from and thoughts on her essay “背景: The View from 2010,” which is forthcoming in the winter issue of The Massachusetts Review (our 60th year anniversary issue). This essay came into being over this past summer, as the protests and violence escalated in Hong Kong, and the Mass Review reached out to Hong Kong writers for their voices and perspective. [Chan Yin Ha, "Peaceful Hunger Striker on the Bridge"; Evelyn Char, "On Rage".] Xu Xi wrote back almost immediately, saying that she wanted to write about “courage, cowardice, and compromise at the heart of her birth city.” The title of her essay, “Beijing,” refers to the view from behind or the back story that is necessary for understanding what’s happening in Hong Kong today.
Xu Xi is founder and director of Asia’s first low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong, which had an exciting but brief lifespan from 2010 to 2016, and which Junot Diaz described as one of the few institutions that “made the practice of writing into a global conversation.” She is currently Faculty Co-Director of the International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she has been a faculty in the graduate creative writing program since 2002. She describes herself as an Indonesian-Chinese-American diehard transnational, who now splits her life, unevenly, between the state of New York and the rest of the world.
Please join me in welcoming Xu Xi!
Xu Xi is author of fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being. She is currently faculty co-director of the International MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at the Vermont College of the Arts.
Q.M. Zhang (Kimberly Chang) is prose editor of the Massachusetts Review.