Xu Xi is co-director of the International MFA in Creative Writing and Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and author of sixteen books, most recently This Fish Is Fowl: Essays of Being, a collection published by University of Nebraska Press in March 2019.
In her collection of thirty essays, Xu Xi—an Indonesian of Chinese descent, born in Hong Kong and now a US citizen—explores the themes of ethnicity, citizenship, domesticity, and belonging. Along with her own immigrant identity, her collection also offers a poignant glimpse into Hong Kong’s struggle for identity and democracy, a fight that has been making international news in light of the renewed protests and clashes with pro-Beijing police.
I met Xu Xi in sub-zero temperatures this January at the New York launch for Hong Kong Noir, an Akashic anthology to which we both contributed. We talked long-distance relationships, airlines—I once worked for United and she for Cathay Pacific—and the international writing life, which is something she’s helping others realize through both the international MFA program she helms and the writing retreats she hosts with Robin Hemley of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her enthusiasm for travel was absolutely infectious, and by the time we left, I was ready to move heaven and earth to arrange for the funds and childcare I’d need to attend their May retreat in Thailand. Four months later I was workshopping stories in the living room of a seaside villa in Hua Hin with talented writers from the US, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. For six days, I got a taste of the kind of international life she so poignantly explores in her new essay collection.
We recently spoke about identity, destiny, her literal attempt to become a citizen of the world by purchasing a “World Passport” as a teenager, and how even in a time of resurgent ethno-nationalism, one can live a transnational life.
The Rumpus: As the title This Fish Is Fowl implies, your collection explores identity in contexts as far-ranging as citizenship, career, gender, family, love, and perhaps most poignantly, your mother’s memory loss. It’s quite stunning how you’ve moved back and forth in time and place, weaving such disparate topics into a cohesive narrative that reads like a memoir-in-stories. How did you pull that off? Surely you’re an accomplished master of craft, but is it also because the question of belonging has deeply touched every aspect of your life?
Xu Xi: Well, that’s very nice of you to say—that it was kind of a seamless moving back and forth. I did rewrite some of the pieces that were previously published so that they work in the book. But I think the second question was right on the mark because I think the question of belonging does touch all these different topics. Citizenship, certainly. But interestingly, career, too, because I had this marketing career, but I was also writing. So I didn’t know which side I belonged on for the longest time, and I didn’t make the decision to leave corporate life until I’d done eighteen years of it and had published some books. And then I moved into yet another career as a teacher of creative writing. That was also unexpected. Again, I wasn’t sure I belonged there, but I came to love teaching in a way that I didn’t expect.
Rumpus: What do you love about teaching?
Xi: Well, with low-residency in particular, it’s the student population it attracts. The students tend to be older professionals who have lives, and I found the people so interesting that that made teaching fun. It wasn’t like, “I’m the teacher. I know it all. I’m going to tell you what to do.” It wasn’t like that at all. It was much more of a conversation between equals.
Rumpus: In America, you’re often called a Hong Kong writer. But in Hong Kong, where you were born and raised, many think of you as Indonesian because of your heritage. Still others have challenged your Chineseness, since you write in English, and also some say you shouldn’t speak for Hong Kong because you left and it’s no longer your home. You seem to have a complicated relationship with your birthplace. How does that affect the way you write about Hong Kong?
Xi: Leaving, especially given what’s happening right now, has been an odd thing. I feel my leaving was a much more personal decision. After years of a long-distance relationship, I just wanted to be with my husband, finally. I think that’s a fairly reasonable thing to want.
I’ve lived the majority of my life in Hong Kong. Now people have accused me of not really being from Hong Kong, but they don’t really know my personal circumstances. It’s challenging. And also, I’m not Cantonese, so the majority culture there is not the thing that I fit into that well.
Rumpus: You talk about being transnational. It sounds like you’re saying you always felt that way, even growing up in one place before you started moving around?
Xi: Even as a child, I mixed with the other foreign students. I had Indian friends and Portuguese friends, and my best friend growing up was a Eurasian girl. We had Indonesian relatives visiting us in the summer, and my dad had Japanese business associates. So it was always transcultural for me growing up.
Rumpus: As our world is rapidly moving in two opposing directions—increasingly globalized and increasingly nationalistic in response—has your relationship to being transnational changed over recent years?
Xi: Not so much. I had more mixed feelings about who I was when I was younger. But I think in recent years, it’s very become very clear to me, and I think over time, I came to make peace with this kind of crazy back-and-forth life I had. I came to understand that it was okay not to fit in any one place. It was better to be transnational, to be at home and not at home everywhere.
I think it was in my mid-forties that I began to really understand that I was a certain breed of person, that there are other people like me, and I just had to find them, especially the writers. I started looking for them. I started reading their work. And that helped. I read the post-colonialists. I read people who bridge cultures. I read the Asian cultures especially because I was most interested in that to try to get a sense of Asia that I knew because I traveled a lot.
Rumpus: When you were a teenager, you obtained a “World Passport” issued by the World Government of World Citizens. I love the image of a romantic youngster believing in this. I’m assuming you didn’t get much use out of it, but what did it mean to you?
Xi: I think that was the beginning of my understanding that there was this other person in the world—Garry Davis—who actually believed that a passport should be something that just gets you around to where you want to go. He gave up his American citizenship, which I thought was quite remarkable. You know, he actually gave it up and just said, “We should not be nation states. We should be one world.” I was like, fourteen or something. And I just read about it somewhere. I thought, Oh, that’s cool, so I wrote away for it—back then you wrote away for things—and it came. I didn’t keep it, unfortunately. I wish I had because it was just like a real passport. Now, was it really a viable password to travel on? No, of course not. It was even worse than my Indonesian passport, which was hard to travel on at the time. You had to get visas for everywhere.
Rumpus: You now co-direct the new international MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which bills itself as “ideal for writers and translators with a global outlook, an interest in world literature, a penchant for reading and writing across cultures, and a healthy dose of wanderlust and curiosity.” Great copywriting by the way. Can you tell us how that program came about?
Xi: It actually came about because the MFA program I was directing in Hong Kong closed. And so I was kind of like, What do I do now? I had this great program, had invested five years, and then City University of Hong Kong closed it. And after all the controversy and hullabaloo, my feeling was, it’s still a good idea and maybe we can make this happen somewhere else. I teamed up with Evan Fallenberg, my co-director. We literally sat down one day in a coffee shop and said why don’t we try to build a different kind of program that draws on this but that’s actually more international. And so we came up with the idea on the back of a napkin.
Rumpus: Oh, I love that.
Xi: Oh yeah, it always happens on the back of a napkin.
Rumpus: So that was the idea for the program in Vermont?
Xi: Yeah, but it wasn’t Vermont at first. We had to find a university to host us, and I remember sort of vaguely talking to the president of Vermont at the time, but they were just starting their residential MFA in writing and publishing and weren’t terribly forthcoming. So I looked around, and we actually talked to British universities and other low-res programs, and we were actually very close with a different program, but then that fell through. And then I happened to be invited back to Vermont as a visiting writer.
Rumpus: You had taught there before, right?
Xi: I had taught there before, so they knew me. And they were trying to get me back in, so I came and I enjoyed it, and I thought I wouldn’t mind teaching there, but I had this international program in mind. And then I thought, while I’m here I’m going to go see the president and see what he thinks. And he was very supportive.
So then Evan and I went into full gear, and what we put together really changed a lot from the original proposal, and it became what it is now. So we’re really excited to have just finished our first year. We have this great bunch of students from all over the world, which is so cool.
The best part is the literary translation. I did not have that in Hong Kong. And I think that that’s really innovative. Because most literary translation programs are stand-alones and don’t consider it creative writing, whereas we believe a good translator has to also understand what it takes to be a good writer. Evan is both a novelist and a translator, so he really gets it. He’s a strong believer in that. So we have a pedagogical outlook that’s different from others. And we believe that this is the right time to be focusing on international literature. We believe that even English language literature goes beyond the Anglo-American tradition. Australia, South Africa, not to mention postcolonial Singapore, Malaysia—we’re going to Malaysia in a couple of years. We just came from Canada. It’s amazing how many Americans know nothing about Canadian literature, but it’s so rich.
And we believe that reading literatures from other parts of the world will change our outlook in terms of what the future of literature can become as the world becomes more global. I know there is a nationalist pushback from a lot of places, but I sort of feel like you can’t stop it. You know, everybody still accepts that they can travel, right? They still want to cross the border. They still want to go places. Now that you’ve let the genie out of the bottle, how are you going to get it back in? I don’t think you can.
Rumpus: Sometimes we can’t get away. Sometimes we can’t write. When you went back to Hong Kong to care for your mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you seemed almost as lost as she did. Not only were you confined to one place, thousands of miles from your actual home and your now-husband, but for a lot of that time, you weren’t writing. Most of us will face similar responsibilities or setbacks at some point in our lives. What would you say to creatives who are tied down by life right now?
Xi: Well, I think that writing isn’t only about producing pages. Writing is also about figuring out what it is you want to say. I did end up writing in the end, in Hong Kong. In fact I published several books, including two I didn’t expect to, including this one. So I think that if you are a writer, it’s always working in the back of your mind, even if you’re not able to sit down every day and work on the book.
Rumpus: One of your essays is about loafing. When we were in Thailand, you mentioned that one of your biggest goals in life is to loaf. I laughed out loud. You are one of the most accomplished, most driven, and most generous writers and teachers I know, so I honestly thought you were joking. Now, having read this book, I think you’re saying your fallow periods have been instrumental in your success. In this collection you say, “The good thing about living life, as opposed to playing the ambition game, is that a space for destiny unfolds.” As someone who also never feels like I’m doing enough, that line took my breath away. Can you talk more about the importance of space and destiny?
Xi: Well, space is easy. I mean, I need to just space out sometimes. I really am not somebody who feels every morning I need to get up after the light.
Space is one thing, but destiny is a separate thing. I wasn’t a big believer in destiny. I thought—you have willpower and you can decide for yourself where your life will go. When I was younger, that’s the way I lived. It was easy to say when I was twenty-five, or thirty, or whatever. But then my second marriage happened, and he was a jazz musician, and then some things changed, and then my parents got older, and my mother got Alzheimer’s. I didn’t choose that. But what was I going to do? Ignore my mom? I couldn’t. So that felt like destiny. And writing about my mother actually helped me a lot. Because in writing about my relationship with her, I began to understand that you don’t escape who you are.
In Chinese culture we believe a lot in destiny. I didn’t used to subscribe to it, but the older I get, the more I feel you can’t dictate all of it. You can’t force your life. Well, you can. You can try. But I think if you’re doing something that’s not in keeping with who you actually are or who you’re meant to be, it usually doesn’t work. You see many awkward examples of it.
Rumpus: Ironically, despite my own wanderlust, I think my favorite essays were the ones on domesticity and feminism. You don’t believe your faith in democracy has been misplaced and hope your faith in feminism is also not misplaced. You say, “Women’s lives, women’s success, women’s worlds matter, and men will change because they must.” Right now, a large contingent of American men are trying, quite vocally, not to change, or they’re even trying to move backward. When it comes to women’s lives, do you see the arc of history bending toward justice?
Xi: I sort of do because it’s a little bit like globalization. It’s so inevitable. It’s like LGBTQ. Now everybody knows somebody gay. So if your neighbor is gay, your classmate is gay, your colleague is gay, suddenly that’s not so frightening anymore. You know? Women are in the workplace. Women are doing all kinds of things. Women are running for president. Several women are running for president. I mean, everybody from the new-agey Marianne Williamson to the more hard-nosed Kamala Harris. So it’s very interesting to watch, and now with a front runner, two women in the top five, that really says something; I couldn’t have imagined this twenty years ago. I’m watching this and thinking, you can’t stop the tide of what’s happening. Women are not going to suddenly go back to being Stepford Wives now, because it’s impossible.
And then you have such powerful figures like the young woman from India, Malala. And Greta Thunberg from Sweden who is going around telling people they have to listen to her about climate change.
I look at younger women, and yes, I am very hopeful.
Photograph of Xu Xi by Leslie Lausch.