In Conversation with Xu Xi
By Jenn Chan Lyman
With China’s crimson banner flip-flapping in the background, Shanghai’s M Talks Literature series had the great pleasure recently of welcoming Xu Xi to celebrate the launch of her new book, That Man in Our Lives, the transnational twenty-first century novel. Xu Xi was interviewed Sunday, September 18, 2016, by Jenn Chan Lyman.
That Man in Our Lives is about long-term friendships. It explores the idea of knowing people over a long time, who become strangers after awhile because you don’t see them all the time, but they’re intimate strangers because they will always know something about you from when you were young.
Jenn Chan Lyman: The novel follows the disappearance of Gordon Ashberry, aka Gordie, and its impact on the people he has known throughout his globetrotting, transnational existence. Each character knows different, and sometimes contradicting, facets of Gordie, which lead them to wonder if they ever knew the real Gordie at all. How well do you think we can really know the people around us? Do you think it’s easier or harder in the world we live in today, with the proliferation of public personae through social media and self-broadcast?
Xu Xi: I think that when you know someone, what you actually know is a very specific part of that person, depending on when and where you meet them. For people who have lived transnational lives, in each of the places they’ve lived they’re going through a specific phase in their life, which in fact makes them slightly different persons. You may know someone in New York when they’re a student, and then later in their life, when they’re in a different city with a family, it’s like they could be a completely different person than the one you knew. Social media adds another layer to that. You can cultivate a certain persona on social media and it becomes a mask, a very public mask.
JCL: Transnationalism, especially with regard to identity, is a big theme in the novel. What does transnationalism mean to you personally, and what is its significance in this day and age?
XX: I never really believed in the idea that your identity is defined by your passport. From birth I had an Indonesian passport, but I didn’t speak any Indonesian. Now I have a Hong Kong permanent right of abode and I also have an American passport, but I’m not just any one of those identities, and I know I’m not alone in this since many people have dual citizenships these days, or even if they only have one passport, perhaps they are more comfortable in a country that is not their nation-state. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I heard about world citizenship, this thing that you could actually apply for that was being offered by Garry Davis, who gave up his American passport and created the World Passport. A lot of people thought it was great - Einstein thought he was great - but it never quite took off. It still exists and somebody recently tried to use it and was made fun of as if it didn’t exist, but it does! And I wrote away for this passport and received all the paperwork for it and everything, and then I realized I could only go to a handful of countries, because not many countries recognized it. But I still believe in this idea of world citizenship, because people live across borders, fall in love across borders. This is quite contrary to all the talk these days about closing borders and not issuing visas. But the ability to live across borders changes you. When you live in a place, it seeps into you, and the memory of what it was stays with you, and that’s what makes me want to write about it, and remember it.
JCL: That Man, Gordie, has traversed three of your previous novels as a minor character, first appearing almost twenty years ago when Hong Kong Rose was first published, then again in The Unwalled City and Habit of a Foreign Sky, until finally harassing you into devoting an entire work to himself. In a sense, That Man is almost like an obsession. How does obsession factor into your writing process and how do you separate the productive obsessions from those that may send you down a rabbit hole from which you’ll never return?
XX: It’s funny, he’s the character that just kept showing up. I’ve had other characters repeat, but not to this extent. And with each appearance I got to know more about him and his history. There have been other characters who have wanted to come back but I’ve said no, as you have to know as a writer which ones to give up. Rose, for example, in Hong Kong Rose, was a pain but she stuck with me for a long time. Originally the book was supposed to be about Rose’s twin Regina, but Rose just kind of said, “Get out of the way,” and ended up taking over the book. Regina shows up in a later short story, but she never really got that much space, and I realized it’s because I had to figure out Rose and not Regina. You can’t always predict it. For me, each novel is trying to solve or work out some problem in life. That Man, for example, is a book about long-term friendships. It explores the idea of knowing people over a long time, who become strangers after a while because you don’t see them all the time, but they’re intimate strangers because they will always know something about you from when you were young. Gordie is a kind of intimate stranger to his friends.
JCL: Other than the character of Gordie, music has been a great inspiration for the novel. There is even a section in the appendix that references major musical influences. How did this soundtrack inform the writing of the novel?
XX: Since I was young, I’ve had a strong ability to recall music and lyrics, sometimes even more so than poetry, even though I studied literature. Music triggers emotions, and that was the interesting thing, I kept hearing Gordie singing these songs, these jazz standards. He’s got a deep voice, a baritone, and certain songs are better for his register than others. He sings these corny romantic songs, and some silly songs, and even imitates Bugs Bunny, because he’s able to do voices. There’s something about being able to hear somebody in your head that tells you about that person. Jazz came to me when I was a teenager, on the radio when I couldn’t sleep, and the first time I remember really hearing jazz was listening to Tony Bennett on The Andy Williams Show. Gordie’s voice is like a cross between Johnny Hartman and Tony Bennett. That’s what his voice sounds like in my head. And not all my characters have soundtracks. Gail in Habit of a Foreign Sky, who is also Gordie’s half-sister, was completely tone deaf, on the other hand.
JCL: What’s the latest obsession keeping you up at night?
XX: Milton. I’m writing a novel called “The Milton Man,” about a Milton scholar in the ’70s who ends up writing a novel based on Paradise Lost which becomes a best seller. The novel takes place in the future and his agent has been waiting twenty-five years for him to write the next novel. I’d put this novel down twenty-five, thirty years ago and it just came back to life again recently when I was at a retreat in Vietnam.
JCL: Just for fun, if you were stranded on a desert island and you could only have one movie and one book, which would those be?
XX: Could I ditch the movie for another book? I'd bring Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, and the other would be Nabokov’s Lolita.
JCL: Lastly, who would you want to be there with you on that desert island?
XX: It would be the real man in my life. It’s either him, or Gordie.
About Xu Xi and Her Work
Xu Xi is the perfect embodiment of the word “transnational.” Born and raised in Hong Kong in an ethnically Indonesian-Chinese and English-speaking household, Xu Xi has made a habit of being the observer from the inside since she was a little girl “talking stories” to herself at night. She seems most comfortable in-between worlds, inhabiting the JFK-HKG flight path, exploring the cracks in space and time, an Argonaut with a laptop observing the world at large and recording her insights in crystalline prose for the benefit of those of us that are just slightly more stationary than she is. Xu Xi’s work has garnered global attention and infused the world canon with real, a-stereotypical perspectives of Hong Kong, Asia and beyond. The New York Times has called her a “pioneer writer from Asia in English” and her recent novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky, was a finalist for the Man Asia Literary Prize.
That Man in Our Lives is Xu Xi’s fifth novel and, counting the essay and short story collections that she has also written, her tenth book. Pulitzer-winner Robert Olen Butler says of That Man in Our Lives: “Beautifully refined in both intelligence and prose, this novel will not let a reader put it down.” And if you are brave enough to toss all expectations aside and go down the rabbit hole with Xu Xi in search of That Man, you will find yourself on a journey, or better yet, a joyride, where there are no rules. You're handed a passport to be trans-everything – transnational, transcultural, trans-lingual, trans-temporal. You will pass fluidly through the perspectives of twenty characters (think modern-day Dream of the Red Chamber). You will be rooted in American English but slide effortlessly from Mandarin to Cantonese to Japanese to Thai in a way that those who have spent time in Asia will be able to relate to. You’ll be asked to step back momentarily as the fourth wall comes crashing down at your feet, and you catch a glimpse of the author herself very literally in her own element. This is a novel that entertains, informs and makes you laugh out loud. But more than that, this is a novel that invites you to consider the trappings of identity in the world we live in today, and wonder at all the hidden selves within us that may be waiting for that perfect moment to take the wheel and transport us to lands unknown.
Jenn Chan Lyman is a fiction writer based in Shanghai.