Xu Xi is the author of many acclaimed novels and essays, including most recently That Man in Our Lives, published last year by C&R Press. She was born and raised in Hong Kong before moving to New York in the ‘80s. She served on Vermont College’s MFA program faculty and was writer-in-residence at the City University of Hong Kong, where she established and directed the first low-residency MFA program to specialize in Asian writing in English.
That Man in Our Lives tells the story of Gordie, a wealthy American Sinophile, opening with Gordie’s disappearance during a flight delay in Tokyo. The fallout informs this novel about how much or little we know of our loved ones.
I talked with Xu Xi about her novel, her life straddling New York and Hong Kong, and the future of literature:
Radii: Who was the inspiration for Gordie?
Xu Xi: Gordie was in four of my previous novels, first a minor character, then more major. But he was never based on a single person. Because most of my American life was on the East Coast, that’s how I know America. It’s still very WASPy. The town Gordie’s from, Greenline, doesn’t exist, but I made it up based on travels to Connecticut. His home in Gramercy is a townhouse I’ve been to. I was quite struck by what wealthy America was like. So Gordie exists so far as he represents that America. When I came to New York City, all my bosses, the people in power, tended to be white men. I was friends with them, worked with them. That became my understanding of class, and is why Gordie is who he is, based on various men I knew in America.
You write a lot about class differences — why?
I learned about America’s class system when I was on Wall Street in the ‘80s, working for the upper classes. I thought, “I’m downstairs and they’re upstairs. I’m the servant class.” That was a mind-blowing experience. It resembled the British or Cantonese upper classes in Hong Kong who disdained people like me because I was not part of that group, wasn’t born into it. I was the first in my family to go to college.
“I thought, ‘I’m downstairs and they’re upstairs. I’m the servant class.'” — Xu Xi
In Hong Kong, I witnessed upper class Cantonese and British colonials who shared an origin story: in their mother countries (China and Britain) these people were actually from lower classes, but became the ruling class in Hong Kong. You know the saying, “Failed in London, try Hong Kong?” Well, Southern China did not historically represent ruling Chinese classes either. We’re the merchants, sea-faring types.
Now Hong Kong’s civil service is largely dominated by Cantonese. But when I was growing up, it was still very British. Local Chinese didn’t rise far. It was an unfair system. If you were local, you didn’t get nearly the benefits the British did. But by the ‘90s when I returned to Hong Kong, the Cantonese civil servants had risen in power and started behaving an awful lot like the old British colonials. Class is just whatever group is in power at the time. Hong Kong is mercantile; money makes a difference. People buy their way into power and become the new generation of landed gentry, their kids acting like the brats of the Chinese cadre. Your blood, race, ethnicity has nothing to do with it. It all comes down to who holds power in a particular space at a particular time.
“Class is just whatever group is in power at the time.”
At the end of the day, the working poor always suffer. In the United States, especially in New York, the divide between rich and poor looks an awful lot like Hong Kong. The divide is huge. It’s much different than the New York I came to in 1980, when you could still rent an apartment for $900/month, survive on a salary of $40k/year. That’s gone.
How does this growing divide between rich and poor influence literary culture?
For one, some of the best writing is not coming out of New York anymore. Publishing is still happening in New York, but there are a lot more small presses. I think literary culture actually might do better if it’s not so New York focused.
What is your literary tradition?
I was an English language undergraduate at a time when the traditional canon — from Beowolf to Virginia Woolf — was still sacrosanct. That’s not true anymore, yet I’m shocked how many creative writing students I’ve taught, including minorities, who’ve not read writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Ralph Ellison. I had a Chinese-American student who’d never read any of the Chinese-American literature. That goes to show how heavily the Anglo-American literary tradition still dominates. It’s still very white and male. I’m an editor at Tupelo Press, and 70-80 percent of our submissions are from white males.
Because of that, being partly Chinese, I decided I needed to read Chinese literature and understand how what I was doing might be comparable. Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the most influential books in my background.
How would you define Hong Kong?
As an individual, Hong Kong is the home in my heart. But it won’t be my physical home when I’m older — that will be a house in upstate New York, because here’s the truth: as a writer you have questionable income, and I cannot afford to buy an apartment in Hong Kong or New York. I couldn’t move to NYC today as a young person as I did in the ‘80s — I got a job, wrote on the side. I met people like Gordon Lish and the Asian-American Writers Workshop was just starting — it was a very exciting time. My small salary was enough for an apartment in Brooklyn, a car.
“As a writer you have questionable income, and I cannot afford to buy an apartment in Hong Kong or New York — I couldn’t move to NYC today as a young person as I did in the ‘80s.”
When I was young I thought Hong Kong was something that would be mine forever. I don’t feel that welcome in Hong Kong anymore. I’m almost too foreign — not Chinese enough for the Cantonese, nor Beijing. That makes me sad. I wonder: Why doesn’t being Chinese have room for diverse experiences? The history of Chinese culture is actually very diverse, the literature too. But being Chinese is difficult. I have an essay about this published in the Iowa Review called: “Why I stopped being Chinese.”
Along those lines, That Man in our Lives was a defiance of everything I’d ever learned. I thought: Let me break every rule under the sun. Let me make my protagonist a white male.
What do you predict for the future of Hong Kong and the U.S.?
I think Hong Kong has a very bright future, economically at least, especially if the local government can manage social issues, like taking care of the less fortunate, solving housing inequality, and giving more opportunities to local Hong Kong kids. Hong Kong students should embrace learning Mandarin and be clearer about the economic possibilities in China because, to tell you the truth, I think China’s future is brighter than America’s at the moment. Sure, China has pollution problems but the government wants to clean those up; China has corruption problems, but the government wants to clean those up.
“To tell you the truth, I think China’s future is brighter than America’s at the moment.”
China is looking toward the future in science, engineering, even the arts. In the US, we are cutting the National Endowment for the Arts, we don’t believe in climate change — all these backward-looking things. Meanwhile, China is invested in the future.
Find Xu Xi’s latest novel, That Man in Our Lives, on Amazon
Cover photo: Leslie Lausch