Scoundrel Time’s Robert Anthony Siegel talks to Xu Xi about her new essay collection, This Fish is Fowl: Essays on Being
Xu Xi’s new essay collection, This Fish is Fowl, is a wry, self-aware journey through a globalizing world where borders exist to be crossed and recrossed, and the most interesting places are on the political and linguistic margins. In a series of sharp, intensely personal essays, Xu draws on a life of hyphenated identities—as an ethnically Chinese Indonesian immigrant to Hong Kong, as a Hong Kong novelist writing in English, and as a newly minted American citizen—to explore the nature of belonging, family loyalty, and the obligations of place. It is a smart, funny, deeply humane collection that eschews easy answers.
Xu is the author of fourteen books, including five novels and seven collections of short fiction and essays, and has edited four anthologies of writing from Hong Kong. Her short work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The South China Morning Post, and The Asia Literary Review among other venues, and has been recognized with an O. Henry Prize and Ploughshares’ Cohen Award, among other honors. She currently co-directs the International MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Robert Anthony Siegel: You are an immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen. What do you make of the current discussion around borders and immigration? And which way do you see it going?
Xu Xi: I must admit that this is the first time I’ve felt deeply troubled by being an immigrant. It has always been difficult being a naturalized American — there are issues of deracination you must deal with, a conflict of belonging and not belonging, the question of having to assimilate if you don’t want to be “alien”-ated, the problem of the Department of Immigration’s ridiculous bureaucracy (and what bureaucracy isn’t, on some level, ridiculous?). But as someone who chose to become an American as an adult and who wasn’t brought here by parents who made the choice for me, I always recognized that the responsibility of figuring out how to live as an American was entirely mine.
Until now, I could accept the issues of identity wrought by naturalization vs. being born a citizen (or who became one very young) of this country. I always felt that the U.S. fundamentally embraced immigration, since this country was built by immigrants and its history is one that is all about border crossings. Of course, there are laws, and rules, some absurd, others quite reasonable. Even the problem of II’s (illegal immigrants) fit in the narrative of a 1st world, prosperous nation that needed an underclass to do its dirty work.
What changed this for me initially was the growing sense that the U.S. was slipping in its ranking as a prosperous 1st world nation with a robust middle class, because the financial system was going seriously awry. I worked on Wall Street in a major law firm back in the 80’s and that was when I had the strongest inkling of this troubling trend; the subprime mortgage crisis was not entirely a surprise to me. And today’s conversation around borders and immigration has become unduly heated in large part because of the economic inequity here that resulted from a lopsided financial system when so-called “trickle-down economics” only went one way, i.e. up. It is easy to blame immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, for all the social ills in the U.S. What we fail to appreciate is that our capitalist economy is now so skewered towards creating a large underclass, as opposed to supporting a middle class, so that too many so-called “real” Americans are competing for survival at what used to be only the dirty work underclass level. The service economy jobs that many people must survive on tend to provide little long-term security or growth for the individual. So, we no longer are tolerant of II’s, and that further extends towards all immigrants, including even those who are law-abiding taxpayers who contribute to stimulating and advancing the economy. In fact, rich immigrants & foreigners (crazy rich Asians of all hues, or South Americans, or Middle Easterners, or Africans for that matter) increasingly will become cause for envy.
And of course, today we have Trump, a president who has turned bald-face lying, hate-mongering and racist rhetoric into political power. He has supporters and followers who want to be with the winner, regardless of whatever moral, ethical or rational dilemma that might pose. As long as Trump is able to hold onto power, the less will America seem like a country of and for immigrants who are not white. And even if he is impeached, or loses his seat as president, he has already infected the culture into accepting lies as truth (especially if loudly proclaimed) and hate and racism as the “right” of power. Also, as long as the economic system depends on outrageous wealth accumulation as the “right” of the small minority at the top, then the less will this country be able to return to a good life for the majority. I must admit I am not optimistic at this juncture that the U.S. will easily find its footing back into a more rational culture, at least not in the immediate future.
I don’t actually like the idea of a “mainstream” because this suggests that a “Main Street” governs what is or is not read, taught and celebrated as literature.
RAS: What do you see as the public role of the writer? Does the writer have any special obligation to speak out on social or political issues?
XX: Yes, writers have a special obligation to speak out on issues that affect humanity but the best way is through her work, i.e.: her writing, unless she is also a politician or activist or works in social services or policy making, or perhaps religion. In other words, the most important public role of the writer is to write, publish and be read. However, that role, meaning that of being a writer, is undergoing a most massive transformation. While writers have and probably always should engage in public intellectual discourse, words take on new meanings when language is reduced to its lowest common denominator.
Is Twitter really the best way to speak out? Or Facebook and sound bites for that matter? Anyone who is a wordsmith knows what it means to reflect on what you read, to comprehend language on more than merely a superficial level, to care about the meaning of words that enrich the language we write in. To think deeply about what you read and listen for longer than a minute before you must turn your attention to the next outcry, and the next. Yet it seems to me that “the public” is on many levels afraid of language, especially the written language.
So, to speak out about social or political issues beyond what you do in the written word, it is becoming almost impossible to do so as “a writer.” There is no space to be a writer if you must spend every waking moment on Twitter or Facebook or chasing sound bites that shout into the ether.
RAS: Let me build on that question: in a time of heightened racial and ethnic tensions, is there something that literature in particular has to offer us—something that journalism and other media can’t provide?
XX: Literature still can and does offer the possibility for intellectual engagement and reflection as well as solace and the virtue of reading in silence. Journalism and other media would benefit from shutting up and listening to what is being said, as opposed to simply coming up with the next riposte. You don’t have to talk back to books the way you do to the TV or Twitter or Facebook. And stimulating the mind doesn’t depend entirely on visuals and the moving image. I love art and photography, but must admit I get fatigued by visual stimuli now that treats words as yet another “image.” Literature offers us the survival of language. I would rather not see language die in favor of all discourse and art becoming merely visual, or worse, taken over by social media.
RAS: You grew up in Hong Kong, the former British colony returned to China under a set of provisions meant to safeguard civil society—provisions that have quickly eroded. How do you see Hong Kong’s future? And are there lessons for us here in the U.S.?
XX: Hong Kong’s future is with China, unless a revolution for independence occurs in the city, something I do not think is likely. There is little support for independence, much greater support for a peaceful or harmonious transition to becoming “China.” One-country-two-systems was an odd construct to begin with, but may actually have a future if the economy and social order remain stable.
Although Hong Kong’s problem is in part political, its greater problem is really economic, which has an impact on its socio-political situation. New York and Hong Kong share certain traits — overheated real estate markets, insufficient middle and lower income housing, too great a disparity of wealth (the GINI coefficient is terrible in both places). New York in the U.S. is the engine of financial power and the ripple effect of the wealth held by the 2% can be felt through the rest of the nation.
So, the real lessons are in wealth distribution, wealth that is now over-accumulated by too small a minority in both the U.S. and Hong Kong. In both places, we watch an economic class system that could become the undoing of these capitalist economies. Milton Friedman praised Hong Kong for its laissez-faire capitalism — it looked good once upon a time, when entrepreneurship built the market economy, when there was a growing middle class. But Friedman was over optimistic and ignored the way the elite controlled that unreal “laissez-faire” through what may well become an unsustainable economy based on ever rising property prices. Today, the inequities between the wealthy Mainland Chinese and globalized Hong Kong Chinese who can send their children to international schools in Hong Kong vs. the very local Hong Kong Chinese who feel stuck in a widening income gap are increasingly glaring. Capitalism is not inherently evil, any more than Communism is. But both these systems have grown out of control in Hong Kong and China, and the result is that Hong Kong’s future is increasingly at risk.
However, the greatest lesson the U.S. can learn from Hong Kong is what happens to a people who are too controlled by a mercantile mentality. A major reason I wanted to leave Hong Kong, from the time I was a child, was that there was too little respect for language, art and culture because everything was about money. I started writing (and publishing) very young, but there was no space for a writer in Hong Kong. Today there is more space, but it still all comes down to money, success and fame, as opposed to the deeper meaning of what literature and art mean for humanity. American universities have gone STEM crazy to the exclusion of the humanities (this is a global problem, really), and in the long run, AI will take over humanity, as long as it makes a few Silicon geeks filthy rich, if we forget about what it means to be human.
“Profit” is an Anglo-American word that should be completely re-imagined for the good of humanity.
RAS: You write about the explosion of literature being produced in “world Englishes,” distinctive strains of English developed by cultures outside the Anglo-American tradition. What are the pleasures and difficulties of working within this movement? And what do you see as its future? Do you see it moving toward the mainstream?
XX: World Englishes does appear to be finding its voice in a kind of transnational or international literature that is written in English. For a long time, the most successful literature of this ilk was from India. While there has long been post-colonial literature from many nations, as well as Commonwealth literature, it is only more recently that we’re seeing greater attention paid to such literatures in the mainstream.
When a New Zealander wins the Booker, or Singapore funds literary activities so that its writers and literature can reach an international audience, or when Korea offers good incentives for translation of its literature, we begin to see the dominance of Anglo-American publishing out of London and New York hold less sway. While London and New York have been responsible for publishing some of the best literature in English and in translation, they have also become myopic because, guess what, it’s much more profitable to reward either the same-old, same-old recognizable kinds of voices (or celebrities of every stripe who must now all be “authors” so that real writers have even less of the pie) rather than seek out the literatures of the world. But we’re seeing a push back, both within the Anglo-American literary spheres (I love the fact that there are ever more indie presses sending up exciting new writers into the literary world) as well as from countries around the world. Interestingly, Amazon has actually helped. Once upon a time, it was impossible to distribute books published by non-American presses in the United States; now, any publisher and even authors can figure out multiple ways of getting books & E Books to a world market. It’s still not easy, but it’s easier, speaking as someone whose publishing career began with indie Asian presses.
I don’t actually like the idea of a “mainstream” because this suggests that a “Main Street” governs what is or is not read, taught and celebrated as literature. Which means that too many writers try too hard to become “mainstream” by writing only to Anglo-American tastes. To become “One World” should be to embrace diversity, and not demand that diversity assimilate into what the English language rules as the way to write. Instead, I’d like to think of the English language becoming roomier, less bound by its pre-existing notions of storytelling, drama, grammar, time, morality . . . by a white, patriarchal, intolerantly racist sense of what is “universal.” One of the reasons I’ve worked to establish a more international form of the MFA in writing is that I want to see literature in English embrace a real kind of “World Englishes” beyond the narrow disciplinary boundaries of linguistics. Which for me is an English language literature that has space for code switching, absorption of other languages and cultural thought patterns, something beyond a monolithic monoculture. English is the current lingua franca, but unless the literature in English also embraces what being a lingua franca means, it will eventually be taken over by the next lingua franca (Chinese, perhaps?) that dominates the world’s economy, which is how English became the lingua franca in the first place, as the likes of MacDonald’s “globalized” the world. It would be my hope that we stretch this lingua franca into literature and not limit ourselves to geekspeak, emojis and the dauntingly stunted languages of only tech & commerce. “Profit” is an Anglo-American word that should be completely re-imagined for the good of humanity.
Author’s Photograph by Leslie Lausch